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World Cup Memories – Italia 90

World Cup Memories – Italia 90

In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th.

Background to Italia 90

Because I was only five when it was played, I do not have any memories of watching the 1986 World Cup that was hosted by Mexico, so my only knowledge of Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God“* goal and his brilliant second against England in the quarter-final are from watching videos at a later time.  Thus the first World Cup tournament I vividly remember viewing at the time is Italia 90, which in retrospect, was one of the poorer major tournaments of my lifetime (perhaps slightly ahead of Euro 2004 in terms of quality).  However, it was a formative experience for me since it was only the second time I had the chance to watch anything outside of English domestic football, following on from the 1988 European Championships.  Back then, there were only four channels to choose from in Britain – the Sky revolution was still a couple of years away – and with English teams banned from European competitions as a punishment for the Heysel disaster in 1985, seeing other countries playing football was something completely novel and exciting to my nine-year-old self. Even the official World Cup anthem – Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma – was fascinating and, for want of a better word, completely foreign to me and made me want to take in every single moment of the competition.

*One note about that handball goal – it is often said that the only people who did not see the handball were the referee and the linesman, but in the linked video, it is not until the second replay that commentator Barry Davies realizes that the appeal from the England players is not for offside, but for use of the hand.  It is clear looking back what happened, but in the instant it happened it was easy to miss that Maradona had hit the ball with his hand not his head.

Despite my young age, I had already become a fanatical football fan and was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, so the fact that two of their main players were on the England team (Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker) was particularly exciting, as well as Chris Waddle, who had been jinking around defenders at White Hart Lane for a couple of years prior to his move to Marseille in 1989.  From the 1988 European Championships, I knew something about the Dutch team, whose main three players were Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten and the Netherlands played with a style and panache that was completely exhilarating.  Ireland had also qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history and were led by former England player, Jack Charlton, so I found myself having two rooting interests for the tournament, which was only tough when they met in their first game.

Unlike now, when 32 teams compete at each World Cup, there were only 24 countries that took part in 1990 and thus they were split into six groups of four, with the top two in each – plus the four best third place teams – progressing to the Round of 16.  Another difference was that a win was only worth two points, compared to three now, so a victory and two draws was worth the same as two wins and a defeat (four points for either – now the former would get four points, the latter six).  Looking back at the list of nations that competed in Italia 90 also provides a snapshot of European history from that period:

Group AItaly, Austria, United States and Czechoslovakia – A year before the tournament, the Velvet Revolution had brought an end to Communism in the country and on January 1st, 1993, it peacefully dissolved into two nations: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

Group B: Argentina, Romania, Cameroon and Soviet Union – Following on from Lithuania declaring itself an independent nation in March of 1990 – with other states following suit over the coming months – the Soviet Union was dissolved in December of 1991 and this would the final World Cup at which the unified team would play.

Group C Brazil, Costa Rica, Scotland, Sweden

Group D Colombia, United Arab Emirates, West Germany – The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and on 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified and henceforth played as a united team, including in the qualifiers for the 1992 European Championships, when West and East Germany had been drawn to face each other in the same group. Yugoslavia – This was also the final tournament at which Yugoslavia played as the Socialist Federal Republics of Yugoslavia: in 1992, they were banned from the European Championships due to the Yugoslav Wars, with UEFA making the decision just ten days before the first match was to be played and their place was given to Denmark, who ended up winning the trophy.  Serbia and Montenegro continued playing under the name of Yugoslavia until 2003, but now each compete under their own name alongside Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Group E Spain, Belgium, Uruguay, South Korea

Group F England, Netherlands, Egypt, Ireland

Omam-Biyik rises above the defence to give Cameroon a shock 1-0 victory over Argentina

Omam-Biyik rises above the defence to give Cameroon a shock 1-0 victory over Argentina

First Round

The very first match of Italia 90 remains one of the most vivid I can recall from my earliest football watching years, as Cameroon shocked the world by beating the defending champions, Argentina 1-0.  It was a bad-tempered affair with several vicious tackles and in the 61st minute, Cameroon were reduced to 10 men when André Kana-Biyik was sent off for a foul on Claudio Canigga.  However, six minutes later the African country were ahead when Biyik’s brother, François Omam-Biyik, rose above three Argentinians to head in a free-kick – although goalkeeper Nery Pumpido should have done much better as he allowed it to squirm through his hands and into the net.  Despite the loss and finishing in third behind Cameroon and Romania, the reigning champions managed to qualify for the next round as one of the four third-placed teams with a stronger record, though once again Maradona got away with a blatant handball when he stopped a goal bound shot against the Soviet Union.

Group F was my primary focus of course and it was one that had sparse goals, with none of the four teams managing to score more than once in any of their group fixtures and only a single victory was achieved, as England beat Egypt 1-0 in the final match.  Had it not been for that win, all four of the teams would have ended up tied on points, but in the end, only Ireland and Netherlands – who had completely matching records including goals for and against – had to be separated by the drawing of lots, with the Irish taking second place, although both progressed to the knockout stages.

In Group A, Italy struggled to find their scoring form early on, but still won all three of their matches with Roberto Baggio scoring one of the goals of the tournaments in their final group game against Czechoslovakia.  The United States – who had qualified for their first World Cup since 1990 – were beaten in all of their fixtures, losing their opening contest 5-1 to Czechoslovakia, who ended up second behind the hosts.  Things started badly for Scotland in Group C, as they were beaten by Costa Rica, a country that was considered a minnow at the time and that defeat ending up costing them a place in the second round, as they won 2-1 against Sweden in their second match, but then fell 1-0 to Brazil in their final group game and finished as one of the two third-placed teams with the worst records.  To this day, Scotland have never progressed beyond the group stages of a major international tournament.

West Germany were the big scorers in the first round of the tournament, scoring ten times in their three group matches, including a 5-1 thrashing of the United Arab Emirates and a 4-1 victory against Yugoslavia.  Colombia and Yugoslavia also progressed from Group D, while in Group E, Spain, Belgium and Uruguay all made it through to the last 16, although the South Americans only booked their place with an injury time winner in their final game against South Korea.

Second Round

Unlike pretty much all of their other games at Italia 90, I cannot particularly remember watching England’s match against Belgium in the second round live.  However, what I do recall is one of the final few kicks of the game, as in the 119th minute (the contest was goalless after 90) David Platt volleyed in a free-kick from Gascoigne to help England avoid penalties, which would prove to be their undoing two rounds later.  One of the last 16 matches did have to be resolved from the penalty spot however, as Ireland and Romania could not find the net over 120 minutes, but the Irish were faultless from the spot kick and David O’Leary – who went on to manage Leeds and Aston Villa in the Premiership – scored the crucial goal to send his country into the quarter-finals in their first World Cup.

The standout of the second round fixtures was the all-South American matchup between the old rivals Brazil and Argentina, which was won by the reigning World Champions 1-0.  The goal came in the 80th minute and although it was scored by Claudio Caniggia, it was made by the brilliance of Maradona, whose run in the build-up was reminiscent of his brilliant effort against England in 1986.  However, the most memorable game was the one between West Germany and the Netherlands, an antagonistic match that was most notable for a confrontation between Rudi Voller and Frank Rijkaard, which saw the Dutchman spit at his opponent twice and both players sent off – which in retrospect seems very harsh on Völler.  The Germans won 2-1, with the first goal scored by Jürgen Klinsmann, who four years later would join Tottenham and is now manager of the USA heading into this summer’s tournament in Brazil.

Roger MIlla celebrating with his trademark corner flag dance

Roger MIlla celebrating with his trademark corner flag dance

Of the other second round fixtures, Cameroon against Colombia proved to be memorable in extra-time for a moment when the South American’s keeper Rene Higuita came rushing out and tried to play the ball, only to be tackled by Roger Milla who scored his second of the match to put the African country up 2-0 and he celebrated with his trademark dance in front of the corner flag.  The other matches in the last 16 saw Czechoslovakia knock-out Costa Rica 4-1; the hosts progressed with a  2-0 victory over Uruguay, their first coming from a stunning strike by Toto Schillachi, who went on to win the Golden Boot; and Spain were beaten by Yugoslavia 2-1 after extra time.


England faced the surprise package of the tournament in the last eight, as they played Cameroon and although Bobby Robson’s team took the lead through a first half goal by David Platt, they were facing elimination after Milla had come off the bench to earn his country a penalty for the equalizer, before providing an assist to give the Africans the lead.  However, Lineker won and then converted a spot kick in the 83rd minute to force extra time, then repeated the trick at the very end of the first period to help England progress 3-2, avoiding penalties late on once again. Ireland’s first World Cup came to an end at the quarter-final stage as they were beaten by the hosts 1-0 in Rome, with Schillachi scoring the only goal, but they had enjoyed their first tournament and famously got to meet the Pope at the Vatican before their defeat.  Argentina made the semi-finals by beating Yugoslavia on penalties, winning despite a miss by Maradona in the shootout; and Germany knocked out Czechoslovakia with a spot kick in normal time, won by Klinsmann in theatrical fashion (though it was a foul, he made the most of it).

Lineker and Gascoigne after Gazza’s yellow card

Lineker and Gascoigne after Gazza’s yellow card


In what would end up being the storyline of many tournaments to come, England’s 1990 World Cup ended with a penalty shootout defeat as they were eliminated by the Germans. The first half ended goalless, but 15 minutes after the interval, a free kick by Andres Bremen was charged down by Paul Parker on the edge of the England box and the ball looped up and over Peter Shilton and into the net.  England were on the precipice of elimination until ten minutes from the end, Gary Lineker scored a marvelous goal to force extra-time once again. taking advantage of a loose ball in the box, he guided it past a couple of German defenders, before finishing with his left foot into the bottom corner.  In the first period of extra time, once of the most famous scenes in the history of English football took place, as Paul Gascoigne lost control of a ball, lunged after it and was booked for a reckless challenge.  That yellow card was his second of the tournament, meaning he would be suspended for the final if England made it, something that Gazza realized immediately bringing him to tears and forcing Lineker to look towards manager Bobby Robson and tell him to “keep an eye on him”.

Alas, the only game Gascoigne ended up missing out on was the third place playoff, as neither country could force a winner inside 120 minutes – though both hit the post in extra time – and when Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, two players you would have banked on scoring before the shootout, missed their penalties, Germany booked their place in the final as they were perfect from the spot.  For England it was the start of a run that saw them eliminated via a penalty shootout in six out of the ten tournaments they qualified for between 1990 and 2012; while Pearce and Waddle ended up in various Pizza Hut commercials poking fun of themselves for missing, though the former found redemption from the spot in 1996 when he converted his opportunity against Germany in the semi-final of the European Championships (only for Gareth Southgate to miss).

The other semi-final also ended up going all the way to penalties, as the hosts, Italy were eliminated from their own tournament by the reigning champions, Argentina.  Italy had taken the lead through their suddenly goal-prone striker Schillachi, but Maradona equalized and the hosts were denied a victory in extra-time when a free-kick from Roberto Baggio was well saved by Sergio Goycoechea.  Argentina had Ricardo Giusti sent off in the 105th minute, but misses from Roberto Donandoni and Aldo Serena in the shootout meant that the South Americans progressed to compete in their third final in four World Cups.

West Germany celebrate winning the 1990 World Cup

West Germany celebrate winning the 1990 World Cup


Really, nobody actually cares about third-place playoffs, but for the record Italy beat England 2-1 and Schillachi – who had only been capped once before the World Cup – scored his sixth goal of the tournament from the penalty spot to secure the Golden Boot.  The final itself was not a great match, but in the 65th minute Pedro Monzón became the first man to ever be sent off in a World Cup final as he was shown a red card for a foul on Klinsmann, who rolled over twice before going up and over on his shoulder in a fantastic piece of playacting – something that is more common place now, but that made him seem like such a cheat at the time (my opinion of him changed very quickly when he signed for Spurs and then celebrated a goal on his debut by diving towards the corner flag…legend!).  In the 83rd minute, West Germany were awarded a penalty for a dubious foul on Rudi Völler and the spot kick was converted by Brehme for the only goal of the match.  Before the final whistle, Argentina were reduced to 9 men as Gustavo Dezotti saw red for hauling Jürgen Kohler to the floor when the defender would not return the ball for the match to continue and several of the South American players surrounded the referee in protest.

Overall, Italia 90 was a huge tournament for me as a kid and furthered my love of the game, even if the standard of football was not as high as other competitions that have been held since.  Incredibly, it has been as long since that World Cup as it was between England’s victory in 1966 and 1990 – and Germany have yet to win the trophy since then, meaning the three-time Champions are long overdue this summer.

Courtesy of John Lally, USA www.politicalfootballs.com

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