Glenn Hoddle has an interesting theory regarding 1966. “England’s troubles actually started with Sir Alf Ramsey’s World Cup winners,” he claimed in his London Evening Standard column last year. “We took a step back and admired ourselves… and stood still. After Ramsey’s success, all our teams – England and club sides – started to play 4-4-2… We got stuck.”
Perhaps more worryingly, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Italia ‘90, the same could also be said of the 1990 World Cup. It seems that a glorious semi-final defeat was sufficient to leave a nation navel-gazing and a generation convinced they are fluent in Italian opera. The truth is that English football has never really got over the events of that summer.
And why should it? There was Luciano Pavarotti, brutal tackling and no fewer than three teams from the British Isles. Sure, there weren’t many goals and the lack of a back-pass rule meant you had time for toilet trips, but this was the sort of month-long melodrama ITV has been trying to foist upon us ever since. Even England’s World Cup song didn’t make us cringe. Well, apart from Keith Allen.
Clearly, Italia ‘90 remains fodder for the nostalgia peddlers, but it should have been a turning point on the pitch as well as off it. England even dared to risk ridicule by using a new-fangled sweeper system, introducing it midway through the tournament, but this epiphany failed to endure. This time the stalling point was cultural not tactical.
By 1992, the game was on its way to being transformed. Television and advertising companies had cottoned on to the game’s family-friendly popularity like never before and 1990 came to be seen as a cathartic experience after the game’s problems of the previous decade. It sparked a revolution but froze our heroes in time. A time we’ve been desperate to recreate ever since.
England’s team united a nation in praise. So when Paul Ince suffered a head injury on the team’s return to Italy in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, he knew there was no decision to be made. Terry Butcher had set the precedent. Bandage that mother up and fulfil your destiny. He’d be forgiven for having had a razor in the shorts, WWE style, for this very eventuality.
Steve Bull had been the lower-league hero in 1990. A former bed-factory worker from the Black Country, his journey from non-league Tipton Town to England goalscorer against Scotland took less than five years. Rickie Lambert might have taken more than twice as long to make the same leap from the beetroot factory but newspaper editors knew what the public wanted.
Most of all, our Paul Gascoigne obsession shows no signs of fading. The search for a successor has taken us from Joe Cole to Ross Barkley and anyone else capable of a cheeky grin and a passable Cruyff Turn. Of course, nobody can come close but Ravel Morrison only has to show up at a Lazio training session to have us dreaming of a repeat.
A quarter of a century on, the latest Gascoigne film has hit the cinemas – brought out to coincide with the World Cup he lit up before exiting at the semi-final stage. Steven Gerrard, meanwhile, is allowed to reflect on England’s subsequent quarter-final defeats as “failure” without the slightest fear of contradiction. Fine margins.
That England’s stuttering last-eight win over Cameroon in 1990 was arguably the worst quarter-final performance of the lot, a display devoid of flair or fun, only highlights the line between ignominy and immortality. England gave Germany one hell of a game. Just don’t mention Enzo Scifo hitting the post for Belgium and Robson’s men stinking out the tournament against Ireland.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that the fatalism of England’s penalty shootouts can never be forgotten. Gary Lineker’s famous line about football being a simple game that the Germans win in the end was self-deprecating humour at its best. But it’s become a source of self-identification. England have managed one win in seven shootouts now. Italia ‘90 remains pervasive.
Hoddle was right about 1966. But it only took 24 years for new World Cup heroes to be found. We are now 25 years on from events in Italy and English football shows no signs of coming to terms with the nostalgia that it brings. Enjoy the memories. But be aware that the only thing sadder than pining over old victories is gathering everybody round to discuss old heartbreaks.
You can follow Adam Bate on Twitter (@GhostGoal)
Is Adam right? Was Italia ’90 actually bad for the English national team? If you want to shout him down like an angry man in a pub unleashing the built-up frustrations of his loveless marriage on some poor bastard who only mentioned politics in passing and is now edging nervously towards the fire exit, you go right ahead: [email protected]