It was a time for redemption. Four long years had passed since Jorge Burruchaga had scored the late goal that won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina and West Germany were primed to deliver payback.
The two nations had picked their way through six matches at Italia 90 to meet again in the World Cup final and there was an overwhelming feeling across the globe that it was the Europeans’ turn to triumph.
The Germans had looked a cut above the rest throughout the tournament, with the semi-final penalty defeat of England the closest they’d come to being eliminated.
The group stage had seen them smash nine goals in their opening two matches against Yugoslavia and United Arab Emirates, before getting past the Netherlands – the side who beat them on home soil in the European Championship semis two years earlier – and Czechoslovakia to reach the final four.
Now, all that stood in West Germany’s way of laying to rest the disappointment of the previous two tournaments was Argentina, themselves a shadow of the team that Diego Maradona spurred to victory in Mexico 86. Yet despite the symmetry, there was no sense of settling any scores within the West German camp.
“If you look to the starting line-up in 86 and 90, just a few teammates played both finals,” explains wing back Thomas Berthold, who was one of only three Germans to have started in both, in an interview with Vincera.
“In the life of a football player, after a big tournament the real life of playing in the league comes very quick, so you don’t think about losing a semi-final or losing a final. A World Cup or European Championship is a very long tournament – a month – and it’s a long time to focus on and keep going.
“I think in 1990 in Italy, the team were very focused and convinced to reach at least the final from the beginning. This was our goal and we were the number-one favourite with the bookmakers, so we kept the pressure and tried doing our job. [There was] nothing about looking back to Mexico or what happened on home soil in 88 – that doesn’t affect any team.”
If West German thoughts were a long way from what happened in the Estadio Azteca last time they met Argentina, you could forgive the same being true for their opponents.
La Albiceleste were a different proposition to the impressive unit that swept aside all before them in 86. Even their talisman, Maradona, was nowhere near his best after coming into the tournament with an ankle injury that left him playing nowhere near full fitness.
Yet, El Diego inevitably remained a key figure in their somewhat attritional run to the final, which started with an astounding defeat to nine-man Cameroon in the opening match.
He was relatively quiet again as Brazil outplayed Argentina for long periods in the last 16, before producing a moment of magic to score the game’s decisive goal. The match remains mired in controversy three decades on, after Brazilian defender Branco claimed to have been spiked by a physio, who gave him a water bottle to drink from.
Then, in the semi against Italy in Naples, Maradona managed to tear a nation in half as the Neapolitan fans adopted the Argentinians as their own in order to cheer their local hero to victory. With relations between Italians in the north and south already fraught, Maradona stoked the flames by reminding the people of Naples that ‘Italy makes it feel important one day of the year but forgets about it the other 364’.
Inevitably, this didn’t go down well with most Italians, culminating in a sting of boos pouring out when Maradona’s name was read out before the final kicked off.
In an ill-tempered match that was low on quality, the Argentina captain didn’t have it his own way either, with his every move stifled by an unlikely hero.
“The most underrated player [in our team] was maybe Guido Buchwald – before the tournament not after the tournament – because he had the job to keep an eye on Diego Maradona,” Berthold picks up.
“But the final was not really a nice match because [Claudio] Caniggia, the most dangerous striker Argentina had in the squad, was suspended and I remember our goalkeeper made just one save in 90 minutes.
“Argentina just tried to defend and do their best job, but they were not able to put pressure on our team. It was just a matter of time before we scored. It was a penalty, very discussed, but now it’s part of the history. Andy Brehme scored and we won the cup, that’s it.”
Berthold’s indifference towards the controversial penalty that settled the match with five minutes remaining probably doesn’t do the moment justice.
As Rudi Völler ran on to a through ball into the box, he jostled with Roberto Sensini for possession, with the defender sliding across to knock the ball out of the way and sending Völler sprawling to the ground. The angle behind the goal shows how little of the forward Sensini touches.
Despite the question marks over the penalty’s award, it’s widely considered that the best team won. In fact, many in England believe that Argentina’s 1990 vintage was so poor that the rightful final had been played out in their semi with West Germany, with the winner of the tie likely to be overwhelming favourites to win the trophy.
But having gone up against both sides, does Berthold agree?
“Yeah, probably. They [England] were a better team in 1990 than Argentina. Argentina had Maradona and then Caniggia, but the English had more balance and more quality than Argentina. Sorry Argentina fans, but this is my opinion,” Berthold says.
“From my memories, England had maybe one of the best teams ever in 1990 and especially with maybe one of the most talented players in Paul Gascoigne. They did very well and they reached the semi-finals, and when you reach the semi-finals, you have to respect the players and the team. It was a tough match for us; we had overtime and a penalty shoot-out and they had some great players in the starting XI.
“I think after 66 in the World Cup final, matches between Germany and England are regarded as some of the most exciting matches ever. Because it was very tight and like a movie, going into overtime and a penalty shoot-out, it was like a thriller.”
But like so many of the tales from international tournaments gone by, Germany weren’t the ones clinging on to ‘if only’. And even when they are, they know exactly how to settle the score.
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.