Beauty, Drama, Passion And Tragedy - Why Italia '90 Was The Best World Cup Ever

There was so much more to this tournament than Gazza's infamous tears
06:55, 11 Mar 2020

You only have to listen to the classic opening title sequence used by the BBC for their Italia '90 World Cup coverage to be transported back to those balmy summer nights thirty years ago. Of course, back then, I had no idea what the words of Puccini’s spine-tingling aria meant, but they somehow captured the transformation of football from just a game to something altogether more profound.

In fact, Italia 90 bore all the characteristics of a Puccini opera – beauty, drama, passion, tragedy, romance and realism, expertly crafted together to create a single unifying spectacle. That said, the final between West Germany and Argentina was by no means a classic.

An ill-tempered, scrappy affair in which the referee was disgracefully manhandled and two Argentines were sent off, the Germans won thanks only to an Andreas Brehme penalty. Notwithstanding it’s ugly finale, Italia 90 remains a seminal moment in world football. 

As we approach the 30th anniversary of Italia 90, a surge of misty-eyed nostalgia is inevitable. Already twitter handles have been launched and podcasts devoted to recounting the tournament are in production. From Verona, one of the twelve host cities, respected sports journalist Matteo Fontana has published his own account of that era-defining tournament, Un’estate in Italia (A summer in Italy).

Matteo is a child of the eighties, and although he also remembers Mexico ’86, Italia ’90 was the first world cup that really affected him. All the more so since for him it was on home soil. Stop and think about that for a moment. You are a football crazy kid. You are still basking in the glory of your local team (Hellas Verona) winning a unique scudetto and then, aged twelve, the world cup turns up on your doorstep!

Having experienced these two momentous events at first hand, is it any wonder that he has dedicated so much of his life to observing and recounting the beautiful game? 

Fontana’s back catalogue includes a biography of scudetto winning Hellas Verona coach Osvaldo Bagnoli (Il miracoliere. L'allenatore operaio) and an exploration of football during Italy’s troubled Years of Lead (Cavalli selvaggi. Campioni romantici e ribelli nell'Italia di piombo). His writing diligently places football within it’s wider social, economic and cultural context.

He even provides a soundtrack, a power ballad laden list to transport you back to the long hot summer of 1990 when guitars were electric and mullets were in. Fontana is also drawn to the big characters and personalities of the game, and Italia 90 had no shortage of those, from grizzled veterans like Maradona and Milla, to flamboyant young showmen like Paul Gascoigne and Roberto Baggio. 

In England, the World Cup brought together the nation as no event had since 1966. Gascoigne’s tears in that epic semi-final against West Germany remain one of the defining images of world cup history, a watershed moment that launched Gazzamania and gave an early insight into the fragile psyche of that troubled genius.

Equally memorable, David Platt’s late extra time winner against Belgium in the first knock out round and the five-goal thriller against Roger Milla’s Cameroon in the quarter final. Off the pitch, the collaboration between John Barnes and New Order provided the only example before or since of a credible World Cup team song.

Just 18 months later, on the crest of the wave of commercial interest that followed Italia 90, the FA Premier League was founded, reversing the long years of hooliganism, falling attendances and ageing stadiums. 

Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci had spent most of his early career with Messina in the lower tiers of Italian football. His breakthrough came in 1989 when, after scoring 23 goals in a season for Messina in Serie B, he was snapped up by Juventus. The following season he scored 15 goals for Juve as they won both the Italian Cup and the UEFA Cup, but with Vialli, Mancini and Carnevale vying for Italy’s two starting berths up front, Schillaci seemed destined to see out the world cup from the bench.

But, with fifteen minutes remaining at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and Italy struggling to capitalise against Austria in their opening match of the tournament, Schillaci was sent on in place of Carnevale. Within four minutes the Sicilian had latched on to a Vialli cross to secure a vital victory for the Italians. Despite his dramatic intervention, Schillaci was once again left out as Italy struggled against the USA in the second group game.

While the host nation were far from convincing in the early stages, they produced the goal of tournament in the closing game of the group, Roberto Baggio’s Maradona-esque individual effort against Czechoslovakia. Schillaci started that game and was once again on the score sheet.

Against Uruguay in the next round, Schillaci’s 65th minute strike was another contender for goal of the tournament, and he also scored in the quarter-final against Ireland, bringing his tournament tally to four. He scored again in the semi-final against Argentina and his penalty against England in the third-place playoff secured his place as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals.

For his remarkable contribution, Schillaci also won the player of tournament, joining the hallowed ranks of Puskás, Charlton, Pelè, Cruyff, Rossi and Maradona. He was the unlikely icon of the tournament. A receding hairline. Those bulging Sicilian eyes, that raw, honest passion. For kids like Fontana, ‘Totò’ symbolised the idea that anything was possible. 

While Schillaci was the arguably the star of the show, there is little doubt who the villain of the piece was. Diego Armando Maradona had won two championships with Napoli but was widely despised in the north of Italy. When Argentina were beaten 1-0 in Milan by Cameroon, he was mercilessly taunted by the San Siro crowd. But he would have his revenge. Argentina faced the home nation in the semi-final at Napoli’s San Paolo stadium of all places.

After an indifferent start to the tournament, Italy were firm favourites and took the lead through a Schillaci goal. With 20 minutes to go, Argentina rallied and Caniggia scored (the first player to beat Zenga in 10 games). Italy responded positively, but couldn’t find a winner, even with 9 minutes of injury time! Penalties followed. Donadoni missed Italy’s penultimate penalty. Maradona held his nerve to score for Argentina and when Serena missed Italy’s last it was all over.

Against the odds, Maradona’s Argentina had won. They would face a highly theatrical but effective West-German side in the final, which even Fontana acknowledges is generally considered the worst world cup final ever. He concludes his account thus:

“The World Cup is over. The last images scroll on the Olimpico’s scoreboard. Against the backdrop of the Roman moon, a magical night was over, Luciano Pavarotti sings on the giant screen. Then a message appears: "Ciao Italia". And below: "Hello USA 94". Football wants to conquer the United States. Things will never be the same again.”

Italia 90 undoubtedly marked a turning point. The passing of one era and the beginning of another. Market forces would influence the game as never before, while players would become increasingly distant from the fans. By 1994, something had changed, the climate was different. For Italian football, Italia 90 represented a high point.

Serie A would continue to entertain for a few more years to come, but like the giant concrete stadiums with their redundant running tracks, the dream of Italian football was beginning to crumble. All the more reason then to embrace Fontana’s detailed and nostalgic reverie and return to those balmy summer evenings of innocence and youth, those magical nights of joy and pain, victory and loss, heat, sweat, blood and tears. 

Italia 90. The greatest world cup ever.

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