Few World Cups have had the impact on a nation that the 14th staging of tournament in Italy during the summer of 1990, as this quadrennial feast of football wasn’t just credited with capturing the imagination of a nation, but also completely changing the way we view the game as a whole.
Boasting fewer goals than in any other previous tournament, plenty of sides prepared to adopt negative tactics, not to mention some questionable sportsmanship, it’s a wonder that Italia ’90 is remembered as fondly as it is today.
But during one of the darkest periods for English football the World Cup of 1990 provided a beacon of light which illuminated a pretty bleak landscape, while paving the way for a number of huge changes which were about to follow.
The game had been blighted by hooliganism during much of the 1980s leading to attendances plummeting with those who still bothered to turn up often watching on from dilapidated stadia with the constant threat of violence, while a number of high-profile tragedies had seen scores of supporters lose their lives.
So as the World Cup in Italy that June approached few could have predicted just how the nation would embrace its national sport once more with stories of crowd violence and the potential of England being kicked-out of the tournament if their fans misbehaved dominating the news.
Things were made even more difficult for the Three Lions as news broke that manager Bobby Robson, who had been treated terribly by the tabloid press in recent years, would be leaving the role for PSV Eindhoven after the finals as the FA chose not to extend his contract.
As feared, the early weeks of the tournament did see violent clashes between the Italian police and England’s supporters, who had been exiled to the island of Sardinia in an effort to contain those who were determined to cause trouble, though there would still be hundreds of arrests.
But on the field a dramatic opening game, which saw Cameroon defeat holders Argentina thanks to a combination of slick passing, silky skills and brute force would set the trend for one of the most memorable tournaments in living memory which would soon have the nation gripped.
After a slow start and having losing their influential captain Bryan Robson, England would progress through the group stages after two draws and a win as Bobby Robson’s side began to grow in confidence and combined with cameos from the likes of Toto Schillaci, Roger Milla, Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita and a host of other colourful characters, along with the efforts of Jack Charlton’s Ireland side, the tournament quickly captured the public’s imagination.
What’s more, it was all played out against the backdrop of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma, which was the BBC’s music of choice for the tournament and along with New Order’s World in Motion, became the soundtrack of the summer; it was becoming pretty clear that we were witnessing something pretty special.
For once, rather than being confined to the back pages of the national papers at best football was now front page news and for the right reasons for a change as the game once more began to appeal to the wider population rather than a small and often marginalised minority.
"It was a seminal moment almost, in terms of football in this country,” explained England’s Gary Lineker reflecting on World Cup ’90. “Lots of different kinds of people got interested in football, all different classes of people, I think it had a significant effect on the growth of football."
As England went further into the tournament the game’s popularity continued to grow and wins over Cameroon and Belgium sealed England’s place in the semi-finals of the tournament for the first time since winning the World Cup in 1966 with Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle’s impromptu dance on the pitch after their quarter-final victory in Bologna perfectly capturing the mood of the nation.
An epic semi-final against old rivals Germany saw Robson’s side come as close as they ever had to winning the World Cup on foreign soil but despite playing probably the best football of the tournament England eventually crashed out on penalties as the nation shed a collective tear along with the distraught Paul Gascoigne who wept openly in front of an audience of millions.
Despite defeat the England team returned home to a heroes reception and a nation which was in love with football once again and, in Gazza, the game had a new superstar; in just a few years football was about to change beyond recognition.
The implementation of the Taylor report following the tragic events at Hillsborough in 1989, would see the introduction of new, all-seater stadiums, while the formation of the Premier League in 1992 along with Sky Sports’ groundbreaking TV coverage which came with it saw us consume football on an almost daily basis.
While England have failed to reach the dizzy heights achieved in Italy almost 30 years ago the game itself has grown beyond recognition from those dark and depressing days. As a brand the Premier League has become one of the most popular spectacles in the world, with English football watched by more people around the globe than ever before.
Whether this would have happened had it not been for Italia ’90 is open to debate but there is little doubt that the tournament was responsible for a huge shift in the way the sport would become viewed in England.
Football has since become socially acceptable and whereas once football fans were viewed with disdain by society and successive governments alike, you are now looked at almost with suspicion if you dare claim not to love what is often referred to as the “beautiful game.”