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11th Jun 2018

Why Italia 90 was the best World Cup ever

The World Cup that lived for drama

Nooruddean Choudry

Nessun dorma. None shall sleep

The merest reference to Italia 90 brings to mind Luciano Pavarotti and his rousing rendition of Puccini’s aria. Whether you have the remotest interest in classical opera or not, it is a seminal performance that swells the heart and rattles the soul.

In that sense, it is the perfect theme for the greatest World Cup of all time. Italia 90 is not the hipster’s choice, nor is it the purist’s preference. In terms of beautiful football, is the best we’ve had? No. Is the most goal heavy tournament ever? Hardly.

At times the 1990 World Cup was attritional. It was a competition in which goals were hard earned and seldom. Victories were torn out of the hands of the vanquished, and vaunted stars were scraped off studs like they were dog shit.

But it made for a tournament that distilled football into its purest form, and asked us all that most vital of questions: Are you moved? Did you ache a physical pain in your heart at every loss? Was victory an eruption of joy that sent you to a little death?

As any fool knows, the sport we obsess over with immature zeal is only worth a jot if you give a shit. If not, it’s nothing but an exercise in passive voyeurism. It is why most fans balk at watching games in a purely neutral state. Sans investment, it is all sporadic nothingness.

During Italia 90, everything mattered, and in the most extreme way. More than any other, it is a World Cup that lived for drama. It was a cinemascope of heroism, failure, beauty and brutality, with a star-studded cast of kings and rogues.

For context, this was an age when we were starved of televised football, especially from foreign shores. Not only were English clubs banned from European football, but English fans were refused live coverage of the competition.

This sensory deprivation meant consumption of the World Cup was heightened. The likes of Baggio, Hagi, Careca, Scifo and Valderrama were described in almost mythical terms in World Soccer and their like. There was a genuine sense of awe.

The course of the tournament introduced us to exotic talents too – Roger Milla (that 38-year-old overnight success), Robert Prosinecki, and of course Salvatore Schillaci. Anyone who claimed to have heard of them was a scholar or a fraud.

But let’s have it right – this is not the World Cup for you if you crave wall-to-wall joga bonito. It is sandwiched between Mexico 86 and USA 94, which boasted 17 and 26 more goals respectively. But in Italy, you were rewarded for perseverance.

Who wants easy pickings anyway? In 1990, there was proper, uncompromising defending. If you did something of note, it was all the more precious and prized. You were left with bruised toes, bloodied shins, and the most robust vindication.

The highs were heavenly, and the lows barbaric. Everything had the extreme drama of grandi sceneggiati. Klinsmann didn’t just dive, he spasmed to an early grave; Benjamin Massing did not merely take out a player, he committed glorious bodily harm.

Lest we forget that this was a tournament that featured such sub-plots as Ireland and their blessed Saint Patrick ‘Packie’ Bonner granting the Pope an audience, and had Diego Maradona trying to turn the City of Naples against the rest of Italy.

And of course there was England and Paul Gascoigne. A World Cup legend was born precisely because it was a tragedy rather than a triumph. Gazza’s tears were completely in keeping with a competiton that was more opera than sporting event.

To paraphrase Leonard Cohen: Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Claudio Caniggia. If something doesn’t break your heart (and shins) every once in a while, it’s not a true romance. Italia 90 put you through the ringer.

And, quite honesty, fuck you if you can’t revel in the shit-housery of a Völler-Rijkaard spit-spat subplot, and not take as much pleasure in that as Roberto Baggio’s divine slalom goal against Czechoslovakia. What’s your favourite rock band? Maroon fucking 5?

There are numerous valid cases I could make for and against Italia 90. All very logical and considered.

It is the hinge between the traditional and modern ages of the game; a catalyst for change that ushered England back into the fold, and killed off the anti-football inertia of the back pass; the one last hurrah for many of Europe’s historical borders.

But fuck that. Italia 90 doesn’t lend itself to cerebral consideration. It wasn’t a thought, it was an emotion.

It is often stated that World Cups are milestones in our lives; four yearly recollections that take us back to another time. There is no logical reason why Italia 90 gave us more iconic moments than any other major tournament. It just did.

Nessun dorma. None shall sleep. That beautifully expressive melody takes you back, doesn’t it? Is that because a lovelorn Calaf is singing into the darkness of the night to his unrequited love in Princess Turandot? Is it fuck. It just moves you innit.

Italia 90 was the best, end of. Don’t overthink it or stress the details. Just play some Pavarotti and recall how incredibly alive it made you feel.