Did you know that it’s been 27 and a half years since Italia ’90?

7 12 2017

Italia ’90 is probably my favourite world cup, read on to find out why.

My interest in tournament football began with inconsequential Espana ’82 details; the kit colour diagrams in Ladybird’s World Cup ’82 book, the multi-lingualism of Panini’s sticker album and the photos in the BBC’s preview guide. The page devoted to Chile contained a photo of footballers standing in front of the snow-capped Andes and it was one of the most strikingly exotic images I’d ever seen. I must add that I was unaware of Pinochet when I was five.

I say “my interest began” but I don’t remember much before 1990. There are fragments of Espana ’82; the draw’s metal cages and Czechoslovakians with badges in the middle of their shirts. There are larger lumps of Mexico ’86; Italy v Bulgaria’s vague outline, edited highlights of Maradona, Luis Fernandez’s shootout winning penalty against Brazil and our playground captain telling me that I was Jose Luis Brown the day after the final. Euro ’88 is in relative high definition; England v Ireland, England v Holland, the USSR v Holland group match but I still didn’t watch the final. I’m sure the increasing clarity had something to do with getting older.

Italia ’90 was the first tournament to entrance me. I suppose it came at the right time, I was the right age and most of it was on telly at a reasonable hour. I had also watched Hero, the official film of Mexico ’86, so many times the line “The day the dazzling Danes finally ran out of steam!” has a Harry Lime on the Prater Ferris Wheel resonance.

I was so besotted by anticipation I felt a frisson of excitement whenever I saw Ciao the stick man mascot. It could have been a Mars bar wrapper, a can of coke or a magazine advert for Fujifilm. Somebody brought an Italia ’90 coca cola miniball to school and we played with it every lunchtime until the synthetic green, red and white leather panels fell off. I knew I had to get one. In hindsight I may have been a willing dupe of the marketing industry.

I can’t say that there weren’t little disappointments like Ladybird’s decision to replace the charming utilitarian air of their world cup guides with the word processor chic of paragraphs at funny angles but little joys like the Orbis “World Cup ’90” binder restored my karmic balance.

The binder brought together a partwork and a sticker album. The different sections – famous goals, famous matches, world cup heroes, a history of previous world cup and a run down on the tournament’s organisation – were a treasure trove for the likes of me. It was exciting enough to see the grounds and other photos and visualise the historic goals from the diagrams but the stickers added a joy of their own.

The logical way they organised the group matches caught my eye. Each group was based around two grounds, the top seeds played all their matches in the biggest ground of the pair while all of the other matches were played in the other ground. I always remembered the pairings; Milan / Bologna, Turin / Genoa, Rome / Florence, Naples / Bari, Cagliari / Palermo and Verona / Udine. This system has the nice side effect of allowing locals to adopt a second team. It’s harder to do that with today’s random ground selection.

I was well briefed about the pundits’ potential dark horses and players of the tournament because I bought a few guides, I had hoped for posters and memorabilia but they were bereft. I knew that a hero would come from the pantheon of familiar names; Lineker, Barnes, Maradona, van Basten, Hagi, Careca, Butragueno.

In the time before Sky TV, you tube and the thrusting venture science of looking at football statistics “foreign players” were little more than names and photos. Even famous players were mostly known by reputation only. The lack of concrete proof wasn’t a problem because the atmosphere was far less oppressive.

Predictions could be taken at face value, opinion could remain unexpressed and you weren’t expected to feel personally let down. You could interact with football on the basis of the hope that moments of great skill would just happen. Looking back I’d say that everybody knew that it was more palatable to imagine than to know but I’m sure that a lot of people were more jaundiced than that, I was probably too young to have discovered cynicism.

For football experts and the forensic analysts from our football content creating milieu Italia ’90 is not exactly a classic world cup, these people are hardened cynics. Before we become bogged down in their semantics there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Firstly, words are just like, someone else’s opinion man. Secondly, football may have always looked backwards to a golden era that didn’t exist. Contemporary reviews of world cups, and official world cup films, often contain disparaging comments about “that modern football these days”, matches are now less thrilling, teams are now too defensive and the general style has become less attractive etc etc.

If football is about anything it’s about two teams trying to stop the other scoring, therefore it has always been largely humdrum, and that includes the supposed pinnacle called the world cup. For every Brazil ’70, Holland ’74 or Brazil ’82 there’s a Germany ’82, Bulgaria ’86 or Greece ’94. Don’t deliberately misunderstand or misquote your humble narrator here, I love to perpetually watch beautiful football as much as the next man but romance wilts when professionalism matters, it’s better to accept that beautiful football is a blip to be savoured.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I liked Italia ’90. I’m no iconoclast or arbiter of taste but I know what I felt and I trust my memories and feelings more than I trust than accepted opinion. In fact I didn’t just like Italia ’90 I loved everything about it.  It was the first tournament that I felt part of and I can recall virtually every detail with fondness. You can’t stop me having memories baby.

Wales had failed to qualify again but my friends and I still looked forward to the tournament. Before the tournament Pete, one of my Dad’s friends, came to our house, noticed the World Cup ’90 binder and proclaimed that he always supported Brazil. I noted the pedagogical tone in his voice but said nothing. I didn’t identify with Brazil, I’d wanted France to beat them in the last world cup.

My friends and I hadn’t thought about picking a side until we noticed the copy of William Hill’s world cup guide near the goal on The Oval (The Oval is a big field in the middle of Llandudno). We’d been playing football with some older lads, as was our want, so I reasoned that one of them had left it behind. Leaving something behind was a common experience as our pre-football routine usually involved chucking unwanted clothes on the ground as quickly as you could to get on with the game.

I flicked through the guide and saw that the older lads had chosen one of the six favourites, Paul suggested that we do the same and picked Argentina, Mark picked Brazil and I picked Germany. I knew Wales had been knocked out by Germany but so what, you couldn’t live in the past daddio. Stephen upset the flow of the idea by picking Ireland on account of his Irish dad, and Irish replica shirt. So we had sides to follow.

I loved the grounds. The photos made them look fantastic so they were the kind of location you could daydream about. The designs looked both futuristic and traditional. There was symmetry, curves, angular edges, arches, intricate steel work, giant girders, glass walls and above all pristine concrete. I didn’t know about the day to day problems – inconvenient locations, bad sightlines, glass screens obscuring the view – I just marvelled at the minds that designed them. I wondered why Britain didn’t have grounds that looked like that but I was too young to understand the machinations behind stadium construction.

Most of the kits looked great, especially the Adidas ones. There were some jazzy elements but it was mostly symmetry and diagonal lines. We were well used to seeing the shirts of the popular sides because there had been plenty of mail order adverts in Shoot and Match. I can still see the adverts featuring England, Scotland, Holland, Argentina, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, USSR and USA’s blue kit. Kit purists would have noticed a few problems with the advertised kits, Argentina’s kit was slightly different from the one they actually wore, the USSR didn’t wear the paint splattered design you could buy and the USA’s home kit was actually white.

Paul and I received the respective shirts but it was harder to source the replica shirts from outside the promoted world cup few so Mark didn’t bother with Brazil’s. I remember Llandudno’s sport shops selling the shirts, one even stocked that blue USA shirt, so I suppose that was where we got them. As already noted Stephen had the Ireland shirt, I don’t know why it was sponsored by Opel.

When I started to watch the world cup I quickly realised that I preferred the adidas designs that you couldn’t buy; Argentina away, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, USSR (Without CCCP). Romania, Cameroon, Egypt, Colombia. In 1990 a side could turn up in an unseen kit because there were no slow marketing reveals or November launches.  It felt exciting to see a kit on TV for the first time and it’s a shame that you can’t be surprised like that now. I could have taken all of them but Llandudno never saw kits like that, the closest I got was stroking the extortionately priced USSR kits in a Liverpool sport shop a few months after the world cup.

The less than stylish outfield kits were very much in the minority, the only one I didn’t take to was Scotland’s apparent tri-coloured tribute to a Breton shirt. The goalkeepers’ kits were a different matter, many of them were gaudy but the most heinous was Austria’s fluorescent stripiness, even the shorts were stripy.

Adidas had evidentially put all their style eggs in their outfield basket because most of their goalkeeping kits evoked the air of Campri’s dayglo ski wear, which was popular in my school at the time. Rene Higuita’s kit was a particularly abomination, it was so bad I can’t even begin to describe it. Having said that honourable mentions should go to the Jackson Pollack tribute worn by Czechoslovakia / Yugoslavia / USSR / USA and the colour panel design favoured by Michel Preud’homme, Thomas N’Kono and Thomas Ravelli.

The sides with the smartest kits were undoubtedly Italy and Brazil. They wore simple designs with classic styling, Zenga in Grey, Vialli in Blue, Taffarel in Green, Careca in Yellow. Continuity may have been key because Italy wore virtually the same design as they had in Mexico, a v necked / polo collar without manufacturer’s logos, and the only change from Brazil’s Mexico outfit was a collar change. I also liked the fact that shorts appeared to be getting baggier.

If I had been Biff Tannen, and foreseen the market for retro football shirts, I could be charging £300 for pristine examples of German or Argentinian shirts on e-bay but I am not, c’est la vie.

For years sportswear and equipment had exerted a fascination, the stylings, the marketing posters in sport shops, the packaging, the look of the labels, the embroidered logos, and the Italia ’90 equipment was very evocative too. Everything about the ball felt perfect. The Tango-esque design meant that it was going to look great flying through the air. The name, Etrusco Unico, seemed exotic, Adidas took the name and design elements from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation. Even the packaging was great, the usual blue and white Adidas creation. They were out of my price range but I already had a nice Tango so it didn’t really matter.

The ball had a namesake in a stylish revelation of a boot. It was one of the first boots that looked a bit different because the three stripes continued around the sole of the boot. While a lot of the top players seemed to wear them Puma Kings were also popular and a lot of the German side wore more traditional looking adidas boots.

I thought the adidas tracksuits looked great with their zig zagging lines. I looked at them from afar, like the shirts and balls I knew I’d never own something like that. Umbro advertised entire leisure wear ranges and both England and Scotland had bespoke collections that included shellsuits, Bermuda shorts, traning shirts, t-shirts. I remember the 5-IN-A-ROW Scotland T-shirt. I didn’t really want to own the stuff I could buy. I liked adidas’ Coppa Del Mundo jumper because it epitomised ’90s chic but I lacked the confidence to think about wearing it.

I found the football engrossing. I didn’t notice the lack of style or lack of quality but I wasn’t looking for faults and I was too busy rushing home to watch matches. The first three days set the tone. The Friday teatime opener, Argentina v Cameroon, took place in the San Siro. Apart from a general sense of excitement about the world cup finally starting Pumpido’s mistake and Caniggia getting cleaned out twice as he tried to hurdle Cameroonian fouls are the two things that stand out. I remember laughing at Paul because his team had lost.

On the second day Romania surprised the USSR in Bari and I dug football on a Saturday. Romania wore red, the USSR didn’t wear CCCP, Lacatus scored twice and the pundits felt sorry for Dasayev. I remember the Romanian fans waved flags that contained massive holes where Ceaucescu’s Neo-Stalinist symbol used to be. There was a metaphorical avalanche of matches in the first three days, Brazil v Sweden, Czechoslovakia v USA, Ireland v England, Scotland v Costa Rica, and the flow continued like that across the group stage. It was fantastic.

There were great stories like Cameroon’s fantastic run to the quarter final, everyone in my year enjoyed Milla’s celebrations and even Higuita seemed to want them to go through, sadly their run was ended by England on the Sunny Sunday evening I flitted between my house and Paul’s. Costa Rica was another of the surprises. USSR and Holland the biggest disappointments. I blame the guides, they told me van Basten was going to be a star, they forgot to tell me that he was injured, although they probably did and I just didn’t notice.

I remember feeling disappointed for Scotland, and especially for Jim Leighton, when they were narrowly defeated, and knocked out, by Brazil. I liked Skuhravy’s hatrick against Costa Rica and the balletic quality to David Platt’s swivelling volley. I remember hoping Ireland would win on penalties and feeling disappointed that Italy knocked them out in the quarter final.

My Germany were great. A great victory over Yugoslavia, a big victory over the UAE in the rain and a draw that allowed Colombia to qualify. A second round victory over Holland with some good goals, a comfortable 1-0 quarter final victory over the Czechs then the famous semi-final shootout with England. I may have been the only person cheering for Germany that night.

Paul’s Argentina were doing ok, a slip up against Cameroon then a win over the USSR and a draw with Romania. I missed Argentina’s victory over Brazil but I managed to watch their quarter final victory over Yugoslavia that featured what my Dad’s mate called the worst penalty shootout he ever saw, then another penalties victory over Italy.

So it was Argentina v Germany in the final. Me v Paul. Paul v Me.  I remember the morning of the final because I was watching a friend playing football when I overheard smug fat man opine; “Oh Argentina will just soak up the pressure”.

This may have been the split second that I decided to take against any and all football opinion smugness. I wanted to put him straight but I didn’t have the confidence. I don’t know why I took umbrage because Germany was only a passing crush. How can you say anything with confidence in football? Needless to say I had the last laugh after a soft penalty and Argentinian red cards. I had managed to pick a winner, and the rest as they say is history.

The matches return easily to my mind but I can’t recall much about the players. I can remember the glory boys like the scorers – Schilachi, Milla, Skuhravy, Careca, Brolin – and the thrilling runners – Matthaus, Caniggia or Baggio – and others that stuck – Cameroon’s Makanaky, Argentina’s Goycochea, USA’s Windischmann – but I don’t remember stellar performers standing out.

I can see glimpses of greatness – Prosinecki trying to belittle an Argentinian defender, Stojkovic’s deftness against Spain and one typical Maradona dribble against Brazil – but that’s it.  I don’t think I had the eye for that kind of detail but our galaxy of stars existed in a less heavenly environment. Football wasn’t massively important in 1990, there was no football PR industry turning footballers into gargantuan merchandise sellers and pundits didn’t forensically pore over minutiae from ten high definition angles. Then again I may not have been looking closely enough.

The world cup story didn’t end there. I bought official videos (highlights and every goal) as soon as they came out and shared them around my friendship group. Brain Moore added the commentary and one phrase; “The X-Factor was a cheeky backheel by Jara” became our phrase of choice for a bit.

In August we took our first family holiday abroad; Amsterdam by ferry from Harwich. We had to change in Liverpool Street and while we were waiting I bought World Soccer’s review of Italia ’90. It was filled by the stuff I liked, stats, photos and the chance to buy a porcelain statuette of Maradona flying over Harald Schumacher. I liked Amsterdam a lot, even if I had to settle for a Ruud Gullit postcard instead of an AC Milan shirt. I wore the German shirt on the way home and an angry ferry passenger shouted “ACHTUNG MESSERSCHMITT, PISS OFF!!!!!!!!” at me. My mum wasn’t amused but I was.

I have two abiding memories of Italia ‘90. The first was the feeling that every matchday was exciting, we didn’t know what would happen, we didn’t know if we’d see great goals. There were always things to say the day after; “Did you see that last night?”, “I’m Matthaus today”, “I’m Roger Milla today”.

The second is the feel of watching matches with a stylish backdrop. By the end of the world cup I could name each unique ground within seconds by the landmarks or the way the seats looked. There was Bologna’s tower, Udine’s arch, Genoa’s combination of terraces and red cubism, the Olympic Stadium’s running track, the subterranean corridor behinds the San Siro goals and the grassy areas behind the goals in Florence. My favourite was Genoa, I desperately wanted to go there. A couple of years ago the opportunity to visit arose and everything was just as I hoped it would be.

For me Italia ’90 feels like it was part of a golden period of football. Cynics could say that I only feel like that because I’m wallowing in the nostalgia of being a responsibility free teenager. They could quite reasonably point out that Havelange and his ideas had been in control of FIFA for 16 years so there was a long list of multinational sponsors connected to FIFA and the world cup.

While that’s all true Italia ’90 still has a watershed quality. It was the last old style world cup, the last tournament without names on the back of shirts and numbers on the front, the last world cup without whooshing logos in expensively designed bespoke fonts. We made do with 1 to 22 and the graphics that RAI used for Serie A matches.

Italia ’90 was also the last tournament to feature nation states from the Europe created by the October Revolution and post-World War One peace treaties. By the next world cup the multi-national nation states of Eastern Europe had broken up. Welsh fans have seen this effect at close hand, over the last three decades Wales have been losing to gradually shrinking countries; from Yugoslavia to Serbia & Montenegro to Montenegro (plus Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia for good measure).

The entire year had a watershed quality; we had entered the last decade of the twentieth century and the Cold War had ended. The triumphalism connected to victory over the “evil empire” produced the “End of History” thesis, which provided the intellectual legitimacy for the onward march of market capitalism.  Craven governments propagated the gospel of market economics under the benign guise of democratisation and liberalisation and lo, multinational companies did brazenly pursue their selfish economic interests. It’s difficult to deny the effect of this process on football.

I can’t help but miss 1990, football just wasn’t the bloated epidemic that we are now forced to tolerate. The Likely lads’ theme was right, the only thing to look forward to is the past.

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