What was it about Italia 90? A World Cup often dismissed as one of the poorest in quality and lowest scoring remains one of the most celebrated.
In England, the answer seems obvious. A first semi-final on foreign soil, a tale of heroic failure and the emergence of a new age for football mean the tournament is often seen as a watershed moment. A performance that personifies what wearing the Three Lions used to be about and what modern-day players don’t have now.
The reality wasn’t quite as linear as that, if still a landmark that beckoned change.
Football in the 80s was a pretty wretched place in England, with hooliganism at its pomp at home and abroad. Away trips were perceived by many as an excuse for a ruckus, with English clubs receiving an indefinite ban from UEFA competition in 1985 following the role Liverpool fans reportedly played in the Heysel Stadium disaster. Thirty-nine Juventus fans were killed when a wall collapsed on them during a scuffle between the two clubs’ fans ahead of that year’s European Cup final.
As a result, the prospect of England fans travelling in their droves to a World Cup in Europe filled officials at home and in Italy with fear. While travelling support was nowhere near as big as it is now, partly due to the reputation of football fans, papers suggest the government even considered withdrawing England from the tournament on the back of 1989’s Hillsborough disaster.
Thankfully, that never came to fruition. But it can’t be underestimated what role the political situation played in how 1990 Britain was changing, with Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year reign as prime minister slowly unravelling. It felt like a changing of the guard with a new approach coming in.
To have a football team that did the nation proud and to make it through an entire tournament without any major incidents involving England fans was a huge plus and encouraged UEFA to bring an end to its ban on club sides. It felt to many back home as if the shackles of the 80s were finally being removed.
England’s relative success would pave the way for the start of the Premier League. Back in 1989/90, 15 players from outside the British Isles played in the Football League – only two of which, Glenn Hysen and Roland Nilsson of Sweden, went to the World Cup.
In fact, it was the one and only time in England’s history that the team contributing most players to England’s squad wasn’t home-based, with four players joining the group from Glasgow Rangers. It’s unthinkable now.
But while there was evolution in Britain, there was revolution further afield. A look down the list of 24 teams taking part in Italia 90 shows just what a different place the world was at the time.
This was the World Cup that saw the final entry of West Germany, USSR and Czechoslovakia with the official end of the Cold War and the end of communism in 1990.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 meant a more unified Germany was already taking shape. However, having already entered qualifying as East and West, that is how the eventual winners would line up in Italy.
With the Iron Curtain no more, the USSR also traded its moniker for the CIS national team for Euro 92 but divided into a host of separate nations – Russia, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – from 1994 onwards. It also opened the way for several of the USSR’s star players to further their careers by moving to some of Europe’s top clubs.
The changing face of the globe also extended to the widening of horizons for many of the traditionally smaller nations, with the likes of Cameroon, Romania and Costa Rica enjoying the limelight their performances afforded them.
Three decades ago, the appearance of nations at the finals from all four corners of the globe was mired with mystery – a concept that’s scarcely relatable in today’s world of in-depth analysis and focus on minute details.
Italia 90’s narrative benefits from that idea, with football still in a transitional phase between extended professionalism and the steady increase of participants in the finals from around the globe.
For Cameroon, their run to the quarter-final in itself is revered by many as the awakening of African football as a true contender on the world stage. However, their true underdog status sometimes gets lost over the years, as more minnows upset the odds at the tournament.
The difference many who don’t remember the tournament fail to acknowledge is that the Indomitable Lions were made up primarily of semi-professional players based in the African nation. Even their talisman, Roger Milla, was a 38-year-old retired pro who was plucked from remote island Reunion and convinced to polish his boots to play.
In direct comparison, the Senegal and Ghana teams of 2002 and 2010 – who are the only other African teams to reach World Cup quarter-finals – were made up of players from the globe’s top leagues.
In short, Italia 90 was a collision of the old and the new. A mishmash of what football was and what it was about to become. A tournament with so many cultural, political and sporting threads running through it.
The quality of the football may not have been as high as other World Cups, there may not have been as many goals per game but the drama and storylines were there by the bucketload. And that’s why it’s cherished by so many all these years later.
Want even more Italia 9o? Then stay tuned to The Set Pieces for the next few weeks, as our dedicated channel features interviews, features and quizzes from one of the World Cup’s most important tournaments – all in association with the Vincera podcast.