Almanac Soccer: Gazza’s Tears, The Lions of Cameroon and Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma: The 1990 World Cup Revisited

The World Cup in Italy in June / July 1990 will be remembered for the Italian high fashion, Luciano Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’, the emergence of England’s Paul Gascoigne as one of the most technically brilliant midfield players to wear the three Lions, for the resolute Germans reaching yet another final and for waning charms of Argentina’s Diego Mardona. It was yet another World Cup where the semi-final battles were better matches than the final itself. It was the World Cup where the English fans’ reputations preceded them and forced the national side to play all of their group games on the Island of Sardinia to keep the inevitable trouble contained. And it was the greatest four weeks for an impressionable fourteen-year-old, Italian-language learning soccer fanatic.


Argentina, winners of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico entered the Italia 90 relying heavily on the skill and imagination of Maradona. He was joined by Claudio Caniggia, he of the flowing blonde locks and boundless energy. It was Canniggia’s goal against Brazil in the second round, made by Maradona, that sent Argentina further towards their path towards the final. But in Argentina’s opening game against Cameroon things came badly unstuck. The Africans were resolute in defence, (some might say overly aggressive) and opportunistic in attack. Their first appearance at a World Cup was in 1982, but by 1990 they were hitting their straps – infighting aside. It was Oman-Biyik who broke the deadlock with a seemingly tame header towards the Argentine goal. Argentina’s goal keeper Nery Pumpido could do no more than let the ball squeeze underneath is body and Cameroon had taken their biggest International scalp. It would get better for the Africans.


England under manager Bobby Robson had qualified well, and had a new weapon in their armoury in Gascoigne. The Tottenham midfielder impressed in a friendly match against Czechoslovakia and a qualifier against Albania, scoring and setting up goals. But his off-field behaviour and conduct was still an issue for Robson who coined the phrase “Daft As A Brush’ to describe the stocky Geordie. On the field he was industrious, quick in movement and vision, a scorer of vital goals and one of the few England players willing and able to take on opposition players and beat them. He was a risk to take to Italy, but a risk worth taking nonetheless.


English football needed a significant boost. After years of crowd trouble and the events in Brussels in 1985 at the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus where 39 supporters died after crowd rioting English clubs had been banned from European competition. There were questions asked by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as to if the side should even travel to Italy for the finals. In April 1989 at an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, Sheffield, 96 Liverpool fans had died after Police had opened a perimeter fence forcing a crush inside the ground. While the deaths were the result of Police incompetence there were some that linked previous crowd trouble to what happened at Hillsborough. By June 1990 English football was at a low ebb. It needed a boost, and needed to perform in Italy. Robson went into the finals knowing it would be his last as England manager and duly signed on at Eindhoven. As it turned out England did themselves and their fans proud at Italia 90, although it didn’t start well. A 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland in their first match hardly inspired much confidence. Ireland, managed by England’s last World Cup winning hero Jackie Charlton, brought a side unfancied abroad but with stars like Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, John Aldridge and Steve Staunton at their disposal. They would go on to fight admirably from their corner. England improved for their next game against a Holland side anchored by the trio of talented AC Milan players Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. The Dutch had won the Euro Championships in Germany in 1988 and much was expected but an unhappy squad turned up in Italy and the performances suffered. Gascoigne, doing his best Johan Cruyff impression was terrific, continually running at the Dutch back four to create chances. Gary Lineker, golden boot winner in Mexico four years earlier with six goals was again England’s focal point in front of goal and his value to the team was evident as the group stages ended and the last eight was settled.


A Mark Wright header against Egypt saw England move into the second round with a date with destiny against Belgium, featuring the blistering skill and goal scoring ability of Enzo Scifo and Lei Clijsters, father of tennis star Kim. Some careers are made at World Cups, and never was that more true at Italia 90 than with Aston Villa’s David Platt. His extra-time volley against Belgium set him on a path to many more England caps, and a career in Italy once the World Cup was over. With the fear of a penalty shoot hovering over the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna it was Gascoigne’s tireless running that earnt the English a free kick in a promising position. Instead of having a shot at goal, which he was more than entitled to do, Gascoigne prodded an inviting free kick deep into the English penalty area. Platt, facing away from his own goal, swung around and connected as sweetly as he ever would again to Gascoigne’s kick. The ball was in the net and England were on their way to the quarter finals.


One of the best games in the second round was West Germany versus the Dutch. There were fine goals, two red cards and tension galore between two teams where there is little love lost. Both Rijkaard and Germany’s Rudi Voller were sent off in a fiery first half for some off the ball nonsense. And Jurgen Klinsmann played his best game ever for Germany, scoring a fantastic goal and dominating play. His future lay in England with Tottenham, replacements for Gascoigne, Lineker and Chris Waddle.


Ireland’s luck continued to hold firm, beating Romania on penalties thanks to a David O’Leary side foot. Italy, the host country entered the tournament with huge expectations, mainly on the back of their new pony-tailed wiz kid Roberto Baggio. His best moment came against Czechoslovakia when he took the ball from within his own half, exchanged passes and weaved his way through the Czech defence to score. His fellow countryman, Toto Schillaci was the surprise packet of the World Cup. Like Platt, Schillaci saved his best for the biggest stage, ending the finals as the golden boot winner. Italy had Schillaci to thank more than once for saving the Italian blushes of an early exit.


Brazil’s side was dangerous, but lacked the quality and skill of the 1982 and 1986 squads. But they could never be discounted. Scotland, not known for their epic World Cup campaigns were led by Andy Roxburgh. The stars of the 1970s and 1980s like Souness, Dalgleish and Gemmil were long gone, but so to were the idiotic predictions. The 1990 squad may have lacked abundant talent but were more grounded. But again the Scots failed to get past the first round of matches.


England and Cameroon worked their way into the quarter finals and were paired off against each other in Naples. Once again Platt scored, this time England’s first goal but it was against the run of play. If England’s luck had held so far it seemed this was to be the game where that luck would finally run out. Gascoigne brought down the 38-year-old Roger Milla in the penalty box and Cameroon scored. Soon after they scored again, this time with a goal brilliantly made by Milla. England’s defence was looking shaky and at 1-2 down time was running out. Enter Lineker. Mark Wright, the stoic Derby defender put Lineker through, he was brought down and for the first time in years England were awarded a penalty. 2-2. Again extra-time was needed and again Lineker converted another penalty. It was Gascoigne’s raking pass that set up the opportunity and Cameroon’s defenders couldn’t cope with Lineker’s pace. 3-2. England were through to the semi-finals but a sterner test awaited in West Germany. They’d defeated the Czech’s in Milan on the same day.


Argentina and Italy battled out the first semi-final and it was Argentina that scored a victory. Maradona was roundly booed. This wasn’t a great Argentinian team, but even a half-fit Maradona was dangerous. West Germany and England faced off in Turin, and the night would go down in history as one of the most dramatic and emotional matches ever played.


Right from the start England took the game to the Germans. They played intelligent football without scoring a breakthrough goal. The West Germans looked tired. But the deadlock was broken by a freak goal, scored from a free kick outside the box. Paul Parker, whose job it was to block the kick was the unlucky culprit. He raced in to stop Andreas Brehme’s free kick but saw his shot deflect off his foot and float into the goal, beating a fully outstretched Peter Shilton. It was a sad way for England to go behind, but their resolve wasn’t broken. At the other end, with less than ten minutes remaining Parker delivered a long ball into the England penalty area and as two German defenders confused each other Lineker slipped in and scored to level the match. Game on. Extra-time again, England’s third game in a row that needed more than the 90 minutes to find a result. Chris Waddle hit the post with a sieving shot. An inch to the left and England would have had the winner.


It would be penalties to decide it. The world was glued to the television as both Nottingham Forest’s Stuart Pearce and then Waddle both missed their penalties to hand West Germany the game. It was a heartbreaking way to lose and to end their World Cup campaign. Gascoigne’s tears after being booked for a rash tackle meaning he would miss the final if England had won were beamed around the world, making him an instant hero back home. His future lay in Italy at Lazio. This was the game that should have been the final, for the actual final was a bad tempered, underwhelming affair between a tired German team and Argentina, still too reliant on Maradona. Unlike four years previous he alone couldn’t inspire the Argies to victory. A penalty settled the game and West Germany were World Cup winners again. The third place play off between England and Italy was a meaningless, solid affair that the Italians won 2-1. It was to be Shilton’s last international match – a marvellous career and a wonderful goal keeper.


Those four weeks back in June / July 1990 were a great time to be alive. Fantastic soccer, drama, emotion and mostly sleepless nights for this 14-year-old. It was also the last time England got anywhere near winning a World Cup since their only trophy back in 1966. But England proved to be the big winners of the tournament. The countries’ pride was restored, and a whole new generation of fans fell in love with football again after the violence and squalor of the 1980s. And they proved in 1990 just how hard it is to make a World Cup finals; under Graham Taylor four years later their path to USA 94 was a disaster and they failed to qualify.



  1. Dennis Gedling says

    Great stuff. It was exciting as a kid but in hindsight it was a poor tournament compared the ones around it. Rijkaard and Voller’s literal spat was a highlight for me along with Ireland. Being at school at the time in a suburb filled with 10 pound poms I enjoyed going for the bad guys in Argentina.

  2. James Grapsas says

    Thanks. An enjoyable retrospective. Overall, a dull World Cup with much defensive play, a lot of back-passing, time wasting, diving and other gamesmanship.

    The West Germany vs England semi-final was an epic. Chris Waddle was a gun in midfield. Too many people readily associate him with his penalty kick that went over the crossbar.

    I appreciated you not delving into Scotland’s loss to Costa Rica. And Australia’s failure to reach the last stage of qualification.

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