The World Cup of 1990 was one of the worst – turgid, low-scoring games, card-happy referees and a final of almost exquisite and cynical awfulness.
And yet in England it has become a thing of myth.
England’s advancement to the semi-finals – their best result since 1966 – was based as much on luck as performance. But then any team needs a certain amount of good fortune to get so far, be it a decent draw, a dodgy decision or a lack of injuries.
No, what made Italia ’90 so special for England was rooted in how low the game had sunk in its birthplace. Because English football, by 1990, was in a truly wretched place.
Hooliganism – ‘the English disease’ – had been a source of national shame for a decade and a half. Terrace troubles were rife at home and abroad, with tear gas and baton charges a frequent backdrop to England games on the continent.
Tragedies at Hillsborough and Bradford were the culmination of years of neglect and under-investment at home and the deaths at Heysel played out live for the world to see how hated and feared English football fans had become.
Some supporters had behaved like animals so the authorities, both at home and abroad, treated them all as animals. They were caged and corralled, their safety of little concern, the mutual contempt there for all to see.
By 1990, to be a peaceful, passionate England fan was a dangerous, soul-sapping exercise. Rival fans wanted a piece of you and so did the police. Rumours were rife that certain tabloid newspapers were even paying hooligans to ‘kick off’ and thus create another round of anguished and self-loathing front and back page stories.
And to cap it all, England’s team was a work in regress. After their notorious 1986 quarter-final exit in Mexico to Maradona and his godly hand, England had endured a disastrous European Championships in 1988, losing all three group games, including a 1-0 defeat by the Irish.
Manager Bobby Robson had already announced that he would leave the post after the World Cup – a decision the tabloids had demanded and then, when they got their way, used as an excuse to brand him a traitor.
By the time the tournament started, the mood among those die-hard fans who still followed English football was ‘what could possibly go right?’.
After the first game, a re-match with the Irish, the answer was ‘hardly anything’.
The 1-1 draw on a stormy Sardinian night was a messy, technically bereft affair that many saw as epitomising British football – stodgy, ugly, primitive – and the fans that followed it.
Five days later, the mood started to shift. Robson, under pressure from his senior players, agreed to change formation and employ a back three with Mark Wright sweeping. The shape of the team transformed, one particular player was then finally given free rein to express himself.
That player was Paul Gascoigne and the tournament, over time, was to become the making of him.
Robson hadn’t trusted him to survive the physicality of the Irish, but Gazza flourished against the Dutch. The game ended 0-0 and yet England’s performance was so far removed from the desperation of the first match that hope – a word not associated with the Three Lions for a long time – began to flourish both inside and outside the camp.
England’s final group game, against Egypt, was a nervy affair settled by a Wright header (from a whipped-in Gascoigne cross) in the 64th minute that won England both the match and the group.
Into the Round of 16 they went. And they brought the luck with them.
Against Belgium, England were second best. They survived a number of close calls, took the game to extra time and then, in the final minute of the match, stole the victory. The goal was pure class – another Gascoigne cross, this time to David Platt. The midfielder watched it come over his shoulder and then swivelled and volleyed it into the net. It was a crisp, sweet strike of enormous technical difficulty; a beautifully cruel way to send the undeserving Belgians home.
And now England were quarter finalists. Against Cameroon. A nation that had learned to despise football were now finally waking up to a new dawn. Their team was as good as in the semi-finals and the majority of their fans had, as a rule, behaved themselves.
Yes, there had been trouble, but even the staunchest football-hater had noticed that quite a lot of the footage showed Italian police baton-whipping English fans standing defenceless with their hands in the air.
Maybe some of the time-honoured cures for ‘the English disease’ weren’t so acceptable after all.
On the pitch, another English trait manifested itself against Cameroon – a complete inability to perform as favourites.
England took the lead, Platt heading home from a Stuart Pearce cross, and then promptly fell apart when the talismanic Roger Milla came on for Cameroon at half time. Milla inspired a comeback of skill and verve as England conceded twice in five minutes.
With just eight minutes left, the scoreline remained the same and could, in truth, have been worse for England. Gary Lineker was then sent clear, only to be fouled in the area. The striker took, and converted, the penalty himself and it was time for extra time. Again.
The match ebbed and flowed until Lineker was again fouled in the area and he again picked himself up to slot home the penalty. Cameroon were all played out and England were in the semi-final.
So that was two English issues put to bed. The fans, now singing ‘Let’s all have a disco’ and congering around stadia, were a happy bunch and the players had managed to win when clear favourites to do so.
But there was one more national obstacle to overcome – the glorious failure.
England’s defeat, on penalties to West Germany, in the semi-final was the most glorious failure of them all. A nation now firmly back in the footballing saddle watched in turmoil as England produced their best tournament football in decades – and still lost.
Confidence was everywhere in the team – even centre half Terry Butcher was performing back heels for goodness sake – and in Gascoigne they had their heart and soul.
The Germans scored first and it was the first warning that England’s luck was finally running out. In the 60th minute of a surprisingly open and enjoyable game, a Brehme free kick hit the wall and looped wickedly over Peter Shilton and into the net.
Lineker fired home an equaliser with just 10 minutes to go and, well what do you know, it was extra time for the third time for England.
Chances came and went – the Germans hit the outside of the post, Chris Waddle hit the inside of the post – and then it happened…the moment that secured English football in the hearts and minds of a whole new generation.
Gascoigne mis-controlled a pass and in seeking to retain possession lunged for the ball. He missed it and instead took out a writhing German. The yellow card was inevitable. Deserved. And it meant that even if England made it to the final, Gascoigne would be suspended.
As the reality bit, Gazza’s face crumpled and the tears flowed. England wept with him and for him. Raised on a toxic diet of thuggery, fear and loathing, English fans were given a precious glimpse of the child-like innocence inherent in what is, after all, just a game. One manchild’s moment of vulnerability washed away decades of hate and hurt.
It was magic and tragic in equal measure.
And then the Germans won on penalties.
Within three years of that semi-final, English football would be transformed into the mighty market-led cash cow that it is today. Safe, modern grounds populated by both sexes and all races watching world superstars strut their stuff to a global audience in love, again, with English football.
Football, so they say, came home at Euro 96. But the journey began at Italia ’90.
The gaudy product of today was once a grey and visceral affair; unloved and unlovely. Italia ’90 changed English football, mostly for the better, in some ways for the worse but most definitely forever.
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