In the late 1980s, the chances of seeing live televised soccer were few and far between, even as I grew up in the UK. You’d get the odd cup match on the BBC and a few league games on a Sunday afternoon on ITV’s The Match with Elton Welsby, but that was about it. However when the World Cup rolled around in 1990, it was glorious — not least because it meant hours of live soccer on TV at noon and night, featuring players I had only seen in magazines.
The opening game on a Friday afternoon between Argentina and Cameroon produced a huge shock. The holders from South America lost 1-0 to an Omam-Biyick header, this despite the Africans having two players sent off. The tournament was under way with a bang.
Other highlights of the group stage were Scotland’s shocking loss to Costa Rica, the 5-1 thrashing of the United States by Czechoslovakia (although the US later performed admirably in a narrow loss to the hosts Italy), West Germany’s ten goals from the likes of Klinsmann and Matthaus, and of course the shockingly tight Group F featuring England, Ireland, Holland and Egypt. Of six group matches, five were draws – including England versus Ireland on a rainy night in Cagliari. In truth a drab game, it remains memorable for the Irish as this was their first ever World Cup game – and winger Kevin Sheedy’s equalizer would ensure he would never have to buy himself a pint on Irish soil ever again.
The second round of games kicked off with surprise package Cameroon knocking out Colombia, a game never to be forgotten for goalie Rene Higuita’s antics that led to a goal by veteran striker Roger Milla and the subsequent corner-flag shimmy. Milla scored four goals in Italy, making his mark on the world stage at the age of 38.
A non-vintage version of Brazil were knocked out by Maradona’s Argentina who had recovered to qualify, while West Germany’s win over Holland sticks in my mind for Dutchman’s Frank Rijkaard spitting into Rudi Voller’s mullet. Hosts Italy beat Uruguay 2-1 including a goal from Toto Schillaci, a previously unheralded striker who would go on to win the tournament’s Golden Boot. More dazzling though was the form of Roberto Baggio. Nicknamed the ‘Devine Ponytail,’ he tortured defenses with incredible close control and zig-zag dribbling.
Meanwhile both England and Ireland progressed, ramping up home interest to fever pitch. David O’Leary’s penalty shoot-out winner was enough to see Jack Charlton’s team through, while Bobby Robson’s England had David Platt to thank for a late extra time winner against Belgium. Emerging for England was Tottenham’s Paul Gascoigne, a mercurial talent whose promise was never quite fulfilled.
England went on to beat a spirited Cameroon in the quarter finals, needing two Gary Lineker penalties to progress after extra time.
It was the end of the road for Ireland’s adventure at the hands of Italy, while Argentina and West Germany battled through games against Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia respectively. Argentina squeaked through a penalty shoot-out despite missing twice. Maradona himself was off-target.
It was at the quarter final stage when, as a young fan, I realized now the games were running out and the fun would soon be over. Still, the feeling was tempered by the knowledge that at the business end of such tournaments, heavyweight encounters lie ahead.
In 1990, the semi-final line-up was Italy versus Argentina and West Germany against England. At the time it was hard to imagine two greater games. If fairytales do come true though, they didn’t seem to here. In Naples, the dreams of the home nation Italy were crushed by Argentina in a shoot-out win, Maradona converting this time around. England’s hopes of a first final since 1966 were not to be fulfilled. England lost to West Germany on penalties, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missing from 12 yards to go down in infamy.
In 1986 West Germany played Argentina in the World Cup Final in Mexico. Four years later, the same two teams contested the final in Rome. The match is not one remembered fondly, except of course by Germans, as an Andreas Brehme penalty was enough to take the trophy in a 1-0 win.
That bad tempered game closed a tournament generally now accepted to be one of the poorest in history. Indeed I remember the words of my dad who claimed he had “seen better matches on park pitches.” None of that takes away from the magic of Italia ’90 for me. As a 12-year soccer fan witnessing wall-to-wall TV coverage, it’s impossible to say how much I enjoyed even the most mediocre of games.
As this year’s World Cup in Brazil gets ever closer, I’m reminded of those games in Italy. And although I’m not 12 anymore, I get excited all over again.