World in Motion book: Retelling Italia 90’s most famous tales

The Italia ’90 effect on English football is a story well told. But how about elsewhere in the world? What was the impact, for instance, in Cameroon, the nation which gave us the enduring image of the 38-year-old Roger Milla’s hip-wiggling celebrations during their ground-breaking run to the quarter-finals? And what came next in those countries which fractured soon afterwards, such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union? 

This was the premise for my book on that World Cup 30 summers ago, World In Motion: The Inside Story of Italia ’90, which explores the legacy – or lack of it – elsewhere. A search that led to 11 countries and the understanding that, unlike in England, there are places where a sour aftertaste accompanies the memories of the Notti Magiche (those magical nights referenced in the official tournament song).

The legacy question was one I put to Milla himself, now a “Roving Ambassador” for Cameroon as his business card puts it. We were in his smart bungalow in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé. On the wall was a painting showing two Millas – the centre-forward and the statesman – and between them, a lion.

“There was a sense of pride for the continent of Africa, a real pride,” he said, “and I think Africa deserved that pride because for a long time great players had been coming out of the continent and playing in Europe but nobody took us into consideration.”

They certainly did in the immediate aftermath, with Africa receiving a third World Cup finals place, but beyond that?

An article by journalist Graham Turner in the February 1991 edition of World Soccer noted accusations of “vanishing tricks” with £400,000 of the riches harvested by Cameroon’s Italian campaign. Turner also described the spectacle of Canon Yaoundé players training on a “sandy pitch levelled out of a hillside”. During my research visit in 2017, I saw that same grassless training pitch. There was the spectacle of players from a top-flight club changing beneath a tree, illustrating the absence of investment in facilities. 

An image of François Omam Biyik’s winning goal in the opening match against Argentina – the first World Cup finals victory by any sub-Saharan African country – hangs on a wall in the national museum. The day after that historic success, the Cameroon Tribune declared: “It’s time for the amateur cliché writers to revise their prejudices about Africa.”

Yet one of the clichés complained about – the “non-existent, off-the-cuff preparations” – has remained rooted in truth. Thomas Nkono, Cameroon’s goalkeeper in Italy, described to me the squad’s 50-hour journey to the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, owing to the threat of a players’ strike over missing money.

“That was us losing before we’d even boarded the flight,” said Nkono, then part of the coaching staff. Since 1990, the Indomitable Lions have won just one World Cup finals match. 

Cameroon’s hosting of next year’s Africa Cup of Nations has at least led to the building of brand-new stadiums in Yaoundé and Douala, and upgrades to the old national-team venues in those two cities, respectively the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo and the Stade de la Réunification. Much needed given that club fixtures are staged in the same few stadiums, often in double-bills.

That said, the game’s globalisation (and for those 1990 finals the number of African nations connected to the international signal had risen from 12 to 25) has produced a generation who would rather pay for a Canal Plus subscription than watch local football. Sitting in the garden of his home on the outskirts of the port city of Douala, Eugène Ekéké, scorer of the second goal against England that put his team within eight minutes of the semi-finals, lamented that his compatriots “know the entire Barcelona team but don’t know a single team in Cameroon”.

This globalisation was a process begun before Italia ’90 – satellite TV had already arrived in the UK – and with the advent of the Premier League and Champions League in 1992, the wheels really began to roll.

Ekéké’s word were echoed in Argentina by Sergio Goycochea, goalkeeping hero of the penalty shoot-out wins against Yugoslavia and Italy. Speaking over lunch in his restaurant (name: Italia ’90) he reflected on the different public responses to Argentinian World Cup final defeats against German sides in both 1990 and 2014.

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“The thing is, people identified with us,” he said of his own team’s run, against the odds (and a backdrop of Italian jeers), to the final in Rome. He argued that by 2014, with seven of the final starting XI having left Argentina by the age of 21 – and Lionel Messi having never played there at all – the feeling was different.

Nowhere is the sense of a lost world stronger than in eastern Europe. It felt significant that, three decades on, this season’s Champions League last 16 should have comprised clubs drawn exclusively from Europe’s five biggest leagues. After all, that 1990 World Cup took place amid the Iron Curtain’s unfolding collapse.

A photograph of Sophia Loren at the finals draw shows the flags of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union above her left shoulder, the Czechoslovakia flag above her right. This was a swansong for all three (combined World Cup semi-final appearances: five) as map lines were redrawn across eastern Europe. 

In Moscow, I met Vagiz Khidiatullin, the Soviet defender punished by one of the most erroneous penalty awards of Italia ’90 – a handball outside the box against Romania. Gazzetta dello Sport on 6 June 1990 rated the USSR as the fifth-biggest barrier to home hopes. Yet there was no longer CCCP on the Soviet shirts but instead a sponsors’ name on their training wear – and, for the first time, a row over sponsorship money. “In our heads, it was the start of something else,” said Khidiatullin.

There were even deeper expressions of regret among members of the Yugoslavia team who came within a penalty shoot-out of the semi-finals. Faruk Hadžibegić, the centre-back whose foiled kick sealed that defeat by Argentina, related how the psychiatrist at his first club, FK Sarajevo, was Radovan Karadžić, later convicted of genocide for his role in the 1995 Srebenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

Yugoslavia’s last-minute exclusion from Euro ’92 – with Sarajevo under siege – still begs the question what their footballers might have achieved given the success of the Denmark side who replaced them. By then, the Sochaux-based Hadžibegić was busy shuttling out of Sarajevo the 22 loved ones who would spend two years sheltered in his home in France.

As for the sporting repercussions of Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up, Darko Pančev sat in his cafe in Skopje – Café 9 – and listed talents like Dragan Stojković, Robert Prosinečki and Dejan Savićević as he insisted: “We’d have won a trophy. Maybe not in ’92 but in ’94 or ’96. One hundred per cent.” 

On the domestic front, the impact was profound too: the strong Yugoslavian league is no more. Red Star Belgrade, European Cup winners in 1991 when Pančev’s kick concluded the shoot-out triumph over Marseille, have won two matches in the Champions League since 1992.

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They will also tell you about a diminished domestic game in Romania, where in December 1989 dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign ended in front of a firing squad. Dinamo Bucharest had more players at Italia ’90 than any other club (10). Steaua Bucharest were European Cup winners in 1986 and runners-up in 1989.

Today Steaua are now a fourth-division team and only Gheorghe Hagi, leader of that talented generation, has created an academy set-up to rival what was lost by establishing his own club, Viitorul. As Ioan Lupecsu, a midfielder in Romania’s 1990 team and now a UEFA technical adviser, said: “The education and dedication and payment for the youth structure under Ceauşescu was very good.”

Lupescu also recounted how before the second-round shootout loss to Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland, their hotel had become a hive of deal-making, with players personally negotiating moves to the west. His room-mate Florin Răducioiu agreed to join Anderlecht one day but the next refused to open the door to the Belgian club’s manager having arranged a transfer to Italian club Bari in the meantime. “They gave me an Alfa Romeo 164,” grinned Răducioiu.

In other countries, the nostalgia flows with less wistfulness. There are only happy memories in Costa Rica, where the first-timers reached the second round, and the Republic of Ireland, whose debut run to the quarter-finals brought some 500,000 people – 14% of the population – on to Dublin’s streets for the homecoming. United States old boys recall their 1990 adventure as a crucial foothold for soccer ahead of the hosting of the 1994 World Cup and the creation of the MLS. 

In a Dubai mall, meanwhile, I heard from Yousuf al Serkal, a member of the UAE delegation, about an early lesson in soft power for the nation which now funds Manchester City’s feats: “Once we qualified, doors were opened in all of Europe for our consulate and embassy [officials].”

And then there was Sepp Blatter who, on a late summer lunchtime at his favourite restaurant next to FIFA’s old headquarters, discussed his own moves to restore the balance towards attacking football after Italia ’90 ended as the lowest-scoring of all World Cups (2.21 goals per game). “The backpass and the foul of the last defender were where we started,” said Blatter, who also helped ensure that referees never again ran the line at a World Cup.

Finally, to Italy. Gazzetta dello Sport’s verdict after the West Germany-Argentina final – “The World Cup betrayed” – was a reflection of the immense disappointment across the host nation. Serie A has since travelled a reverse road to the Premier League and the timing of last month’s announcement that AC Milan and Internazionale had received permission from the Italian heritage authorities to demolish their San Siro home felt symbolic.

In 1989/90, when Old Trafford’s average league attendance of 39,077 was the highest in English football, Milan’s 80,000-capacity football theatre was a source of awe. Yet the third tier added for the World Cup ruined the grass, leaving a smell of damp down at pitch level. 

The San Siro and Italy’s other municipal-owned World Cup venues (total cost: £980m) would be overtaken by stadium developments elsewhere in Europe. With neither Milanese side ranking among the 30 European clubs with the highest average yield per spectator in UEFA’s latest club licensing benchmarking report, economics means San Siro is set for the same fate as Turin’s Stadio delle Alpi, venue of England’s semi-final against West Germany. Unloved owing to its running track, it was demolished less than 20 years later.

If the sheen has gone, a lingering hurt remains. Aldo Serena, the only World Cup footballer to have grown sideburns as a homage to Mick Channon, told me he flew to Bora Bora after his failure from the penalty spot had sealed the hosts’ semi-final exit in Naples. “I still get a feeling, a trace of bitterness, I have to be honest,” he said, an admission that sometimes no place is far away enough.

Author and journalist Simon Hart’s excellent book World in Motion: The inside story of Italia ’90 by DeCoubetin Books is available to buy now. Hart also features in Italia 90 podcast, Vincera, so why not double up?

World in Motion book: Retelling Italia 90’s most famous tales
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