Unfortunately, one World Cup has to be ranked the worst. For most, Italia ’90 takes the honors. It’s a shame, actually, because while the play was ugly, there were numerous storylines that we captivating. This World Cup saw one team who had survived sectarian conflict and partition to ride a shocking upset run all the way to the quarterfinals; it saw America return after a 40-year absence, in rehearsal for its own hosting duties; it saw an already famous operatic tenor catapult himself into a global icon and introduce many football fans to classical music, in arguably the best blend of art and sports ever; it saw a player from Yaoundé come out of retirement at age thirty-eight, and lead his team of Lions into their own quarterfinal berth; it saw a goalkeeper shatter records for shutout minutes in World Cup play; it saw two bitter rivals play over 120 minutes in a classic match in Turin, which wouldn’t even be enough to settle things, and one man’s tears become a lasting image of passion in a country that was said to lack it; and it saw a lower league journeyman striker come out of nowhere to win the Golden Boot for leading scorer, and then just as quickly fade back into obscurity.
(The 1990 World Cup logo. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
1990 FIFA World Cup
June 8-July 8
Champion: West Germany
Runner Up: Argentina
Third Place: Italy
Fourth Place: England
Golden Boot: Salvatore Schillaci, Italy (6 goals)
After Mexico had become the first country to host the World Cup, Italy would follow suit four years later. For many, this made sense – Italy had won three championships, had been runner-up once, and had one of the best domestic leagues in the world. Then-FIFA president Joao Havelange of Brazil selected Italy in 1984 for hosting duties. The only other serious bid came from the Soviet Union, one year away from the brink of collapse. Indeed, this World Cup would be the last of its kind – for the last time, two points would be awarded for a win. By the time the U.S.A. hosted four years later, it would be three points. Additionally, with the geopolitical climate of Europe about to undergo radical changes, it would be the final official appearances of teams like the old Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, one year before the Cup, one of the most monumental events of the twentieth century occurred in Berlin, West Germany. On November 9, 1989, protesters started destroying the famous (or infamous) Berlin Wall. Over the next few weeks, as the wall came down, a once-partitioned country came back together, the culmination of almost a century of political turmoil in Germany. After the Cup of 1990, a united Germany would come together. Many felt they would be unstoppable.
(The Brandenburg Gate came into full view in late 1989 as the Berlin Wall was torn down. Photo courtesy of U.S. News.)
Qualification and preparation
Initially, 116 teams began the qualification process, but three teams’ applications were rejected for financial reasons: Belize in North America, and both Mozambique and Mauritius in Africa. Hosts Italy and defending champions Argentina qualified automatically. Many favored the Argentinians again, because of a strong lineup that still featured Diego Maradona in it. Additionally, he played for Napoli, one of Italy’s teams in Serie A. Many in Naples saw themselves as outsiders within Italy, and Maradona would later use that to his advantage. In South America, Brazil qualified easily along with Uruguay. Advancing to an intercontinental playoff was Colombia, attempting to qualify for their first appearance since 1962. Against the OFC representative, Israel, Alberto Usuriaga scored on the home leg in Barranquilla to help the Colombians advance. Colombia had two well-known players that year, both on and off the field. The first was a goalkeeper who shared many of the traits of former German keeper Sepp Maier: gaudy outfits, long permed hair, and a tendency to be reckless with ball. He was a goalkeeper with the mentality of a midfielder. Later in his career, he would popularize the “scorpion kick,” where he jumped in the air from his own goal box, and kicked the ball out with his feet behind his head. It was the one and only Rene Higuita.
(Rene Higuita would become a beloved symbol of the Colombian team. Photo courtesy of Daily Express.)
The other had an even longer hairstyle, and was known for his great attacking instincts. The problem was that he wouldn’t or couldn’t play any defense. Still, like Higuita, Colombia would have another legendary player in their history in Carlos Valderrama.
(Carlos Valderrama was known just as much for his hair as his excellent play, probably the best Colombian player in history. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Brazil’s road to qualifying was shockingly harder than expected. Their lack of superstars finally seemed to be catching up to them, and they only advanced after a controversial moment during a head-to-head matchup with Chile. During that match, Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas went to the ground after supposedly being hit with a flare that was thrown from the crowd. Already down 1-0 with only twenty minutes to go, a loss would have eliminated Chile. With Rojas down on the ground, his Chilean teammates left the field and claimed the pitch was unsafe. The match was left unfinished. Under FIFA rules, they could have restarted the match from start, or punished Brazil. But later video evidence showed that while a flare was thrown, it landed much too far away from Rojas. Additionally, there were no powder burns around his face, but rather scrapes from what was later revealed to be a razor. In other words, Rojas was faking the whole thing. Chile was immediately disqualified (along with the 1994 qualifiers as well), and Rojas was banned from any form of professional football for life.
Also disqualified from the tournament were the reigning hosts, Mexico. They were penalized for using overage ineligible players in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. As a result, the final CONCACAF Championship was now anybody’s for the taking. And a first-timer would emerge from the group, with little-known Costa Rica taking first place on goal difference. They would be appearing in their first World Cup ever.
One spot was left up for grabs. It would come down to one last match between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. Things hadn’t gone well for the U.S. They were required to win on the road and had gone several matches in a row without scoring. Additionally, it was arguably Trinidad and Tobago’s best team, nicknamed the “Strike Squad.” All the hosts needed was a draw to get in.
Coming into the capital city of Port of Spain on November 19, 1989, the famous Hasely Crawford Stadium was filled to capacity. As a matter of fact, it was overflowing, with 30,000 spectators in a stadium that held about 22,500 or so. It was billed as “Red Day,” a national holiday on the island. This was the American team, made up of college kids and semi-pros. Sure, they’d be hosting the World Cup in 1994, but still, it was the U.S….wasn’t it?
The Americans, knowing their history and desperate to make a good showing before their turn as hosts, attacked from the opening whistle. John Harkes, one of the first high-profile American players to play in England, had several good chances early. Trinidadian midfielder Elliot Allen had two chances of his own, but American keeper Tony Meola was up to the challenge. As the game approached the half-hour mark, neither team had broken through. Then the Americans went on the attack. Off a throw-in, the ball took a bounce and found its way to defensive midfielder Paul Caligiuri. A college standout at UCLA, Caligiuri would later become the first American to play in the Bundesliga in Germany. But he had looked sluggish, and wasn’t known as much of a scorer. He lobbed a left-footed shot from just behind the eighteen-yard box. Trinidad goalkeeper Michael Maurice was caught off guard. He would later argue that the sun was in his eyes. Whatever the reason was, the ball escaped past him, and landed in the back of the net. Because of a lack of a professional league, the U.S. Soccer Federation was planning to end the contracts for the national team the following month. Some had talked about taking away hosting duties in ’94. But Caligiuri changed the face of the U.S. soccer team forever.
It was American soccer’s version of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” The hometown fans fell silent. Despite desperate Trinidadian attempts for an equalizer, Meola kept them off the scoreboard. The United States held on for a historic 1-0 upset win. It was the first time in 40 years the United States would play in the World Cup. In those years, the Cup had changed around them, from offensive firepower to defensive efficiency. Even if they weren’t ready for the big stage yet, it was a huge step towards relevancy of the world’s game in America. It would no longer be a niche game. Soccer was now an American sport.
(Paul Caligiuri scored arguably the most famous goal in American history. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)
(The Caligiuri goal. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
If America’s story was great, then Europe’s only newcomer was just as much. Ireland (or Republic of Ireland, as FIFA has them listed) had made great strides by qualifying for the 1988 Euros, and upset England along the way. For a country that had undergone decades of sectarian violence between Catholics in Ireland and Protestants in Northern Ireland, many fans would have been okay if they had just shown up to play. But led by former England player Jack Charlton, Ireland had some players on their squad – goalkeeper Pat Bonner, defender David O’Leary, and scorers Ray Houghton and Tony Cascarino. One band released a novelty song called “Give It a Lash, Jack.” By the end of the tournament, they’d wear the glass slipper. In qualification, they finished behind Spain for second place to qualify automatically. England finished second in their group behind Sweden; Belgium and Czechoslovakia both had the same points and goal differential, with Belgium winning the group on the second tiebreaker, goals scored. Also qualifying from Europe were Romania, Soviet Union, Austria, Scotland, West Germany, Netherlands, and Yugoslavia.
England’s team was undergoing a crisis of conscience. As the 1980s wore on, many right-wing political groups had infiltrated English league matches, with xenophobic and racist chants becoming the norms. Known as “firms,” various groups of hooligans would do battle with rival firms at league and international matches. For many, the fighting was more important than the match itself. As a result, after qualification, their notorious fans were placed on Sardinia for the group stages, in hopes that they wouldn’t disrupt the tournament. It met with mixed success.
Still, there was something unexpectedly good coming out of England that year. Four years prior, the Three Lions had done a full album, to much embarrassment and annoyance. Of the 22-man squad for Italia ’90, only six showed up to record the official song. But this time, it was different: they were the guests. The song was being recorded by pop group New Order, whom many consider to be a forerunner to the boy band craze that would permeate the music scene over the next decade. The six that did stay became part of England fans’ favorite World Cup song. Even neutral fans fell in love with the song. It was too catchy not to. Additionally, Liverpool winger John Barnes, originally born in Kingston, Jamaica, created the song’s iconic moment, with a spur-of-the-moment written rap. Having gone through racial abuse throughout his career, Barnes won an unofficial contest, and soon became the best-loved part of the song for many people. Twenty-plus years later, England fans joyfully sing the song.
(“World in Motion” was a surprisingly good World Cup song. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Another legendary moment in the lead-up was a recording of “Nessun dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”) from the opera Turandot by opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. Many opera lovers were thrilled when he, Jose Carreras, and Placido Domingo were put into a “super group” known as the Three Tenors. But Pavarotti was the most famous. And his song would transform him from a well-beloved niche singer into a global icon. Many people say that this song made them appreciate opera. His iconic moment was him holding the final notes, whose lyrics were perfect for the moment:
Dilegua, o notte!
“Vanish, oh night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!”
(Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti became an international celebrity after his recording of “Nessun dorma” as the tournament’s official song. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
In Asia, South Korea would qualify, as would another debutante, the United Arab Emirates. Neither team was expected to do much, but making it was a dream for both teams.
In Africa, bitter rivals Egypt and Algeria met for one of the two guaranteed spots. The first match had ended in a scoreless draw. At home in Cairo, Hossam Hassan scored only four minutes in for what would prove to be the game winner. But scenes later turned ugly, with Algerian superstar Lakhdar Belloumi accused of throwing a broken beer bottle that hit Egypt’s team doctor in the face. While Belloumi was never punished, an arrest warrant was kept active for twenty years. Algerian fans also threw pots for plants into the crowd. The other spot in Africa went to Cameroon, who beat Tunisia 3-0 on aggregate to advance. One of their members, a thirty-eight-year old striker named Roger Milla, was coaxed out of retirement for one last go around – or so he thought. Milla was about to show that even on the pitch, old dogs have their day. And his team, nicknamed the Indomitable Lions, were about to show the world their muscle.
(At age 38, Roger Milla became a fan favorite for Cameroon. Photo courtesy of http://www.iffhs.com.)
Before the Cup got started, Italy had one last roster spot available. It went to a fourth striker who wasn’t expected to see any playing time. In fact, he had only had one real good season for Juventus in Serie A. Additionally, he was only in his first year with the club, making his Serie A debut at the relatively old age (at least by football standards) of 25. His Italy debut had only been a few caps at that point, also at age 25. Lastly, in a country famous for its beautiful women – and some might say even more beautiful men – he was considered “ordinary” in terms of looks. But manager Azeglio Vicini ignored all these things and picked him anyway. And soon afterwards, the Cup would be treated to “Le notti magiche di Totò Schillaci.”
(Salvatore “Totò” Schillaci was about to have a World Cup for the ages. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Hosts Italy were drawn in with Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the United States. Italy and Austria faced off first. The hosts started slow, with all of their big-name attackers – Andrea Carnevale, Gianluca Vialli, and Roberto Donadoni – all failing to find the net. Many of the hometown fans expected another scoreless draw. Vicini was forced to make a decision. Many fans groaned when he inserted Salvatore Schillaci into the game (75′). But only three minutes after coming on, Schillaci latched onto a header and poked it past Austrian keeper Klaus Lindenberger. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Schillaci himself, who pumped his fists over his head and celebrated. It was the only goal of the match as Italy won 1-0. Many of Schillaci’s teammates were unimpressed. As they correctly pointed out, “Anybody can stick out his head.” But before the tournament was over, they’d be singing a different tune.
(Schillachi’s “notti magiche” began with the winner against Austria. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
The United States was opening against Czechoslovakia. Sadly, while the Americans had made believers out of themselves, they still had a long way to go. The Czechoslovakians demolished them, 5-1. Paul Caligiuri got a goal for the United States, their first in forty years, but it was already 3-0 by that time. And in the same game, midfielder Eric Wynalda was sent off early in the second half. Against Italy, due next, they were thought to be lambs to the slaughter.
(Eric Wynalda leaves the field with security escorts after his red card during the United States’ opening match. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Many Italian fans seemed to enjoy this fact. They kept chanting “ten, zero, ten, zero” all game, in anticipation of the expected scoreline. But the Italians were still working out the flaws in their game as well. For the second straight game, Schillaci began the match on the bench. He entered early in the second half, and while he didn’t score, Italy nevertheless broke through (11′) through Giuseppe Giannini. As it turned out, Italy would lose their bragging rights a little bit. Yes, they won, but that 1-0 scoreline wasn’t as bad as anybody expected for the Yanks. Walking off the pitch, over ten thousand partisan Italian fans rewarded the United States team with a standing ovation. They were eliminated, but it was a respectable scoreline against a dominant opponent. In the other match, Czechoslovakia beat Austria 1-0 on a Michael Bilek penalty (31′).
By now, it was clear to Vicini that Schillaci should be in the starting lineup against Czechoslovakia. With Italy already through anyway, he figured he had nothing to lose. Nine minutes in, Schillaci rewarded his manager’s confidence, hitting another header for the first goal of the game. Later in the match, Roberto Baggio weaved his way around the defense from just behind the midfield line and added a second.
(Schillaci’s goal celebrations were just as famous for their earnestness and surprise. Photo courtesy of BBC.)
As great as Schillaci was that year, Baggio’s goal was probably the best in terms of technique. For the hosts, Baggio was also a little bit quirky. In a country rooted fiercely in Catholicism, he was a convert to Buddhism, which many Italian fans were unhappy about. Additionally, his unique hairstyle would earn him the nickname “Il Divin Codino” – The Divine Ponytail. Baggio’s moment wasn’t quite here yet, though. It was another four years away.
(Roberto Baggio scores for Italy against Czechoslovakia. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
(Roberto Baggio scores his goal against the Czechoslovakians. Photo courtesy of The Sun.)
The United States would end up losing their final game to Austria, but it was also respectable, a 2-1 scoreline. Bruce Murray added a consolation goal for the Stars and Stripes (albeit due to a goalkeeper bobble), and for a while was the USMNT’s all-time leading scorer. Despite losing all three games, the United States had a blueprint for their hosting gig four years later, and earned a measure of respect along the way.
(Bruce Murray added a late goal in the U.S.’s final game. Photo courtesy of http://www.mlssoccer.com.)
Argentina was preparing to defend its title against Cameroon at the famous San Siro in Milan. But things didn’t quite turn out like they hoped. Whether it was by accident or design, Cameroon began hacking Maradona, over and over and over again. And it actually worked – Maradona would have a pretty poor game that day. About two-thirds of the way through the match, André Kana-Biyik received a straight red card. Only six minutes later, his younger brother François Omam-Biyik leaped high into the air. His head got to the ball, and he beat Argentinian goalkeeper Nery Pumpido. Just like the Belgians in 1982, Cameroon now had a shocking 1-0 lead on the defending champion Argentinians.
(François Omam-Biyik goes up to score the goal for Cameroon. Photo courtesy of http://www.goaldentimes.org.)
Determined to hold the lead, Cameroon continued their fouling tactics. One minute before time, Benjamin Massing committed such a bad foul that the shoe came off. Already on a yellow card, and already a man down, now Cameroon were down to nine players. But they held on to record the 1-0 shock of Argentina. Same scoreline, same team, same result – and both times, Argentina was the victim of a cruel joke.
In the other match of the group, a much-improved Romania side won 2-0 over the Soviets. While the USSR hadn’t collapsed yet in actual practice, cracks were already beginning to show. This was evident as Argentina rallied to beat them 2-0 and eliminate them with one game to play, with captain Volodymyr Bezsonov being sent off. Shockingly, Cameroon showed their victory was no fluke.
The Cameroon-Romania game saw Roger Milla score twice, enabling him to do his famous goal celebration with the corner flag. The Indomitable Lions needed both of them, as Romania got one back from Gavril Balint with two minutes to go.
(Roger Milla scores one of his two goals against Romania. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)
(Milla was famous for celebrating at the corner flag. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Cameroon got a little too complacent, losing 4-0 in the final match to the Soviets, in their last great moment of World Cup glory. Still, after a 1-1 draw with Romania and Argentina, it was enough for Cameroon to win the group. Romania and Argentina advanced to the round of sixteen as well, while Soviet Union went home, their last official World Cup match. Four years later, a separate Russia team would make it back.
Perennial short straws Scotland actually had an easy group this time, despite Sweden and Brazil being in with them. But both of those teams were off their game. While Sweden lost all three games, all three of them were by respectable 2-1 scorelines, a first ever in World Cup play for a team who lost all three games. And it would set up their magical run four years later. But even with an easier group, Scotland couldn’t get the ob done, losing 1-0 in an upset to Costa Rica, with the decider coming four minutes after halftime. As it turned out, Costa Rica won two games and lost 1-0 to Brazil to take second in the group and advance.
Scotland still had a chance to qualify after winning 2-1 against Sweden. All they needed was a draw against Brazil and it would be enough. For most of the match, they held their nerve. In a scary moment, but also admittedly a pretty hilarious one, Brazilian midfielder Branco smacked Scottish midfielder Murdo MacLeod with a rocket shot to the face. MacLeod would be forced to leave the pitch six minutes before halftime.
Still, Scotland was in control with ten minutes to go, led by their best goalkeeper, Jim Leighton. But then on a shot, he fumbled the ball, and Brazilian striker Luis Antonio Correa da Costa – better known as Müller – rebounded the shop and looped it over Leighton’s head. Brazil won 1-0 and the Scottish were eliminated, again. For Scotland, it was starting to become a cruel joke at this point. No, they didn’t have that great of a team, but they probably could have gotten through with a little bit of luck.
UAE and Colombia faced off. One was in their first match ever, the other in their first in 28 years. Colombia would get the better of the debutantes, 2-0, with Valderrama adding a second after Bernardo Redin started the scoring five minutes after halftime. Elsewhere, West Germany beat Yugoslavia 4-1, with the first and third goal scored by Lothar Matthäus, and another one from Jürgen Klinsmann. Despite their star power, the two were rivals for being the “lead dogs” on the team, both internationally and later for Bayern Munich at the club level. Klinsmann was also notorious for his diving, which was something new to the game, perhaps later than expected. But Klinsmann was very obvious. Frustratingly, the referees bought his act. It would “help” the Germans later in the final.
(Jürgen Klinsmann was a notorious diver as well as a great player. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.)
A goal from Davor Jozić wasn’t enough to help Yugoslavia in that match. But he came back against Colombia and scored the only goal with fifteen minutes to go in the next match. West Germany beat UAE 5-1, with the latter getting their first Cup goal only one minute after halftime from Khalid Ismail, and it was only 2-1 at the time. But two goals from Rudi Völler proved too much to overcome, and the Emirates were eliminated with one game to go.
They would go down to their third straight defeat 4-1 to the Yugoslavians, including a 2-0 deficit after ten minutes. They got one back in the first half, but it wasn’t enough. Yugoslavia took second in the group to advance. A stoppage time equalizer (90+3′) from Freddy Rincon allowed Colombia to eke out a 1-1 draw and take third place and advance to the knockout stages for the first time ever.
(A clutch goal from Freddy Rincon put Colombia in the knockout stages. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)
Belgium, fresh off of a semifinal berth, seemed to be continuing their run with a 2-0 win over South Korea in Verona. They were older, but still played pretty well. But it would also be the last run for many of them – Jan Ceulemans, Lei Clijsters, and Eric Gerets among them. But with new goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme in goal, the Belgians still had a modicum of talent, even if it was slowing down. Elsewhere, Uruguay and Spain fought to a scoreless draw.
The old guard helped Belgium to a 3-1 win, with Clijsters (15′), Scifo (24′) and Ceulemans (47′) leading the Red Devils. Pablo Bengoechea (73′) added a consolation goal. Unfortunately, Eric Gerets was sent off shortly before halftime for a second yellow. Spain had taken the game against South Korea 3-1 following a hat trick from Michel. All of them were necessary, after an equalizer Hwang-bo Kwan made the Spanish nervous.
(Eric Gerets was sent off against Uruguay in Verona. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
For the Red Devils, Gerets’ absence would cost them in the final match. Spain beat them 2-1 with Michel (26′) and Gorriz (38′) scoring, sandwiched around an equalizer (29′) from Patrick Vervoort. It was enough for Belgium to advance, but they dropped to second and Spain took the group. Similar to Colombia, a stoppage time goal allowed Uruguay to win 1-0 and take third place in the group to advance.
The most wide-open group was Group F, and there was a lot at stake. England and Ireland faced off in a rematch of Euro ’88. Many Ireland fans would have been happy for one point, let alone a goal. Things didn’t start well for Ireland, with England’s Gary Lineker scoring only nine minutes in. Ireland had chances but couldn’t convert for most of the first half.
(Gary Lineker scores for England against Ireland. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
But in the second half, things would change. Seventy-three minutes in, Ireland got a clutch equalizer from midfielder Kevin Sheedy. They held on for a priceless 1-1 equalizer to earn their first point. Of all the debutantes, the Irish would have the best run.
(Video of Kevin Sheedy’s equalizer. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Another shock result was Egypt earning a 1-1 draw with Netherlands. Substitute Wim Kieft opened the scoring for the Dutch, but a penalty goal from Magdi Abdelghani (83′) helped them get their first point as well.
Each of the next two matches ended in scoreless draws. The Irish were content to get a point against Egypt, but also frustrated because they couldn’t break through and get the extra point. Pundit Eamon Dunphy would begin a feud for the rest of the tournament with Jack Charlton over tactics. The stout English registered the same result against Netherlands. Every team now had two points and everything to play for.
England had a frustrating first half against the Egyptians. Finally, after 58 minutes, center back Mark Wright broke through for the winner, the only goal he scored in the shirt. But it was enough to eliminate Egypt and send England through as the group winners with only two goals.
A draw would get the others in, and even then, they’d have the same goal differential and goals scored. It looked like the Dutch would seize the advantage when they took the lead (11′) through their temperamental captain, midfielder Ruud Gullit.
(In a critical match for both teams, Netherlands struck first through captain Ruud Gullit. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Did Ireland have anything left in them? Following a shot that was saved by goalkeeper Pat Bonner, all the players ran forward. Bonner’s kick sailed all the day down the pitch, towards the box. Dutch right back Berry van Aerle was first and got a foot on it, but it was mishit. Unusually, it caromed back to goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen, who proceeded to bobble it. Suddenly, it was a footrace. Van Breukelen went for it along with midfielder Richard Witschge, who broke late. Attempting to get there for the Irish was 24-year-old striker Niall Quinn. Quinn got there first and fired his shot. Sprioc!! Sprioc!! (Goal!! Goal!! in Irish). “It’s there!! Niall Quinn has done it!!” exclaimed announcer George Hamilton. Quinn had hit the equalizer that would immortalize him as a hero in his home country for the rest of his life. It was enough for both teams, as the scoreline held up after that. They both would advance to the round of 16, but because the goal differential and number of goals scored was exactly the same, the two teams drew lots for positioning. The Irish would take second and face Romania in the city of Genoa, while the Dutch would be forced to face their old rivals West Germany at San Siro. Few had expected Ireland to even get a point, let alone advance in second place.
(Niall Quinn equalizes to get Ireland into the knockout stages. Photo courtesy of http://www.independent.ie.)
(Highlights of the Netherlands-Ireland match. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Round of 16
The knockout stages opened on June 23 with Cameroon facing Colombia in Naples. It wasn’t a great match, but still entertaining. Neither team scored during regulation, forcing extra time. Still no score after the first extra period. But the final fifteen minutes would be magnificent. Right after the kickoff, Rene Higuita would become the goat. He took a pass from one of his teammates – right near the midfield line. Higuita got a poor first touch and tried to recover. Unbelievably, Roger Milla was right there and stole the ball. All Milla had to do was dribble a little further as Higuita desperately tried to beat him back in a footrace. It was no use. Milla had arguably the easiest goal of the Cup, making it 1-0. Two minutes later, he scored again to give Cameroon the victory. Colombia got a goal back from substitute Redin, but it wasn’t enough. Amazingly – and through some bonehead goalkeeping – Cameroon was the first African team ever to make the quarterfinals in the World Cup. The question was asked worldwide: What was Higuita thinking?
(In one of the most shocking moments in the World Cup, Roger Milla outruns Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita to score the first goal in the round of sixteen. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
That same day, Czechoslovakia and Costa Rica met in Bari. Costa Rica was the other surprising team to make it into the knockout stages. Unfortunately, their luck ran out, as the Czechoslovakians ran past them, in what would prove to be the latter’s final moment of real glory in the World Cup (even after splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia). It was 1-1 for a while, but a hat trick from Tomáš Skuhravý led them to a 4-1 victory, with Lubos Kubik scoring one of his own. For the most recent time, Czechoslovakia and/or either of its successors would play in the last eight.
(Tomáš Skuhravý celebrates his hat trick against Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
The two rivals in South America, Argentina and Brazil faced off. Still, Brazil was off their game, and it showed, as Argentina won in a slight upset 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals. The winning goal came with nine minutes to go. Two other moments doomed the Brazilians: captain Ricardo Gomes was sent off (85′) and at some point in the game, midfielder Branco drank from a water bottle that Diego Maradona later admitted was spiked with an illegal substance. Branco was never caught, and even if he had, he may not have been punished because he never knew about it, but it made him sluggish and off his game. Whether Maradona personally spiked the bottle or just knew about it remains a mystery.
The next match was the West Germany-Netherlands game. Not only were they famous rivals in war and football, but it ran deeper for some. In Euro ’88, the Dutch shocked West Germany – who was hosting the tournament – in the semifinals, and later won the whole thing. After the twenty-first minute, Dutch defender Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler battled for the ball. Rijkaard tackled Völler hard, and received a yellow card. Following that, he spat in his hair. For this, Völler complained to the Argentinian referee, and he himself was booked. Just over a minute later, Völler went to the ground a little too easily and also committed a handball inside the box (West Germany was the attacking team in this case). Völler claimed he was trying to avoid a collision with van Breukelen in goal, but not a lot of people bought it. As a result, Rijkaard got even madder, stepping on Völler’s foot and tugging on the ear as well. The referee had had enough, and sent both of them off in hopes of avoiding a full-scale brawl on the pitch. On the way back to the tunnel, Rijkaard let out another volley of spit. While they would eventually reconcile later, the testy match ended 2-1 in favor of West Germany. Klinsmann (51′) and Andreas Brehme (85′) scored for die Mannschaft, while the Oranje got a late consolation goal on a Ronald Koeman penalty. The Dutch were headed home.
(Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler had a memorable tussle in the round of 16, which led to both of them seeing red. Photo courtesy of BBC.)
The next day saw the host Italians beat Uruguay 2-0 at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Once again, it was Salvatore Schillaci who started the scoring, getting the first goal at 65′. He later set up substitute Aldo Serena for a second (83′) to clinch victory. His Cinderella story continued.
Another Cinderella story was about to continue as well. Ireland battled Romania in Genoa. Neither team would score and it would need to be decided on penalties. Romania went first, and scored with Gheorge Hagi, their best scorer, a left-footed midfielder just signed to Real Madrid, and nicknamed “The Maradona of the Carpathian Mountains.” Four years later, he would become a household name.
(Romania’s Gheorge Hagi scored in the penalty shootout against Ireland. Four years later, he’d have a World Cup for the ages. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Sheedy followed for Ireland. 1-1. Each of the next three kickers for each team scored – Danut Lupu, Iosif Rotariu, and Ioan Lupescu for Romania, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, and Tony Cascarino for Ireland. On the fourth Irish kick, Romanian keeper Silviu Lung furiously kicked the ball into his own net in frustration. It came down to the last kicker for each team.
Substitute Daniel Timofte came up for Romania. In goal, Pat Bonner was waiting. Timofte fired a shot, which was actually hit pretty well. Bonner dove. SAVE!!! Bonner dove in the right direction, and got his hands on it, and blocked the kick. George Hamilton merely called out: “Yep!!” The Irish contingent behind the goal went berserk. Ireland was in the driver’s seat. Now they had a chance to win. But their last kicker was hardly known for his goal-scoring prowess. Even Big Jack Charlton was reluctant to send him up. But he relented.
(Pat Bonner makes the save to put Ireland in the driver’s seat. Photo courtesy of Sunday Post.)
David O’Leary was Ireland’s last shot. He was an amazing defender and still holds the all-time games record for Arsenal. But he wasn’t known as a goalscorer. He’d score only one official goal for his country (shootout goals don’t count in official totals, by the way), and that would be one year later. Many Irish fans were nervous. Could he do it? O’Leary made his run up. Hamilton made the call: “The nation holds its breath…” O’Leary raced up, shot, and fired it into the top right corner. It went in, against all odds. “YES, WE’RE THERE!!” cried Hamilton. Inconceivably, Ireland was in the quarterfinals. Brazil hadn’t made it. Spain would fall against Yugoslavia one day later (mild spoiler alert, sorry). Netherlands had fallen, as had Uruguay. In 1990, the debutantes from Hibernia stood atop of all of them.
A quote from William Butler Yeats’ poem September 1913 sums up all of Ireland’s naysayers perfectly: “They weighed so lightly what they gave./But let them be, they’re dead and gone./They’re with O’Leary in the grave.”
(David O’Leary converted the winning penalty for Ireland to give them a shocking quarterfinal berth. Photo courtesy of Irish Times.)
(Full video of the dramatic Ireland-Romania shootout. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
As mentioned, Spain fell to Yugoslavia, with Dragan Stojkovic scoring twice, including the winner in extra time. In the final match in Bologna, England and Belgium were scoreless and one minute away from penalties. But suddenly, David Platt sent the Three Lions through with a dramatic goal. I would write more, but it’s too disappointing. Belgium never really recovered. Their first Golden Generation was effectively over. I’m convinced that had Belgium held on to win that game, they would have made the semifinals again.
(David Platt’s goal against Belgium sent England into the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of http://www.englandmemories.com.)
The first quarterfinal opened in Florence on June 30 between Argentina and Yugoslavia. It seemed like Argentina was trying to play for the shootout, and they got it in this match, playing to a scoreless draw and forcing penalties. Shockingly, Diego Maradona had his penalty saved, and Pedro Troglio did as well. But Yugoslavia fell apart, with Stojkovic hitting the crossbar and two other shots saved. Gustavo Dezotti scored the winning penalty for the Albiceleste to put them into the last four again.
Ireland faced off in Rome against the host Italians. The Irish gave it their best, but again, Salvatore Schillaci would hit the winner (38′). In this case, the one-man underdog for the Azzurri outlasted the upstart underdogs of Ireland. Still, the Irish flags waved proudly from the stands. Although they were out, the Irish returned to a hero’s welcome in their home country. It had been a magnificent run.
(Totò Schillaci’s winner sent the host Italians into the semifinals. Photo courtesy of Irish Times.)
The low-scoring, high fouling trend continued as West Germany defeated Czechoslovakia 1-0 on a Matthäus penalty 25 minutes in. While many newcomers had done well, the old guard was beginning to rise to the top.
The last match was the best. Cameroon and England faced off, and many in England were hopeful again for their best team in almost a quarter century. Additionally, they weren’t taking Cameroon seriously. The mood in the locker room seemed very jovial, as if it was an easy match. But Cameroon would put up a great fight. David Platt started the scoring in the first half for England.
But in the second half, Cameroon showed their spirit. With just under thirty minutes remaining, England committed a silly foul inside their box for a Cameroon penalty shot. It would be Emmanuel Kundé stepping up to take it. And his penalty shot found the back of the net past Peter Shilton for a Cameroonian equalizer. Four minutes later, it would almost fall apart for England.
(Emmanuel Kundé scores from the penalty spot to tie the match for Cameroon. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Following a counterattack from their own half, the ball was lofted into the England box. Substitute Eugène Ekéké, only on the pitch for three minutes, ran onto the ball and lofted it over Shilton’s head. Suddenly, it was 2-1 Cameroon. If the Indomitable Lions could hold on for another twenty-five minutes, they would be the first African team in the semifinals. Shilton later admitted he felt that England was out of options.
For almost twenty minutes, Cameroon had their foot in the door. Then, shockingly, they gave away a penalty of their own. There was potentially a dive from Gary Lineker, but if that was the case, it worked as referee Edgardo Codesal of Mexico awarded it. Lineker strode to the penalty spot, and put it past Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono. With seven minutes remaining, it was 2-2 and both teams had everything to play for. Neither team scored again in regulation and it headed to extra time with the same scoreline.
Towards the end of the first extra time, England pressed forward again. Once again, it looked like Lineker took a dive. Once again, it looked like the referee fell for it and awarded a penalty. And once again, Lineker converted, giving England a 3-2 lead. Lineker’s heroics – if you can call them that – allowed England to pack its defensive lines back. Cameroon attempted to score in the second extra time session but couldn’t find it. England survived to advance to their first semifinal since 1966, when they won it all on home soil. Cameroon were out, but they had been the first spectacular team from Africa. Even if it was a little late, England’s contingent gave them much-deserved accolades.
(Gary Lineker’s second penalty kick goal was the winner for England. Photo courtesy of http://www.tottenhamhotspur.com.)
(Highlights of the amazing Cameroon-England match. Video courtesy of YouTube.)
Heading into the semifinals, Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga hadn’t been scored on in the first five matches. In fact, Peter Shilton had held the previous record, and he was still playing in the other semifinal. It looked like Italy’s fortunes had continued when Totò Schillaci broke through in the 17th minute. His look of shock and elation became a lasting image of a tournament where underdogs had their day. The match was still young, but Italy controlled their own destiny to get to the final.
(Schillaci’s goal celebration against Argentina was one of the Cup’s most lasting moments. Photo courtesy of BBC.)
But even though they were host, the home-field advantage wasn’t there. Known for being a hotbed for illegal mafia activities and tight, narrow streets, much of the city of Naples felt separated from the rest of Italy. And in what was otherwise a below-average World Cup for him, Diego Maradona implied the fans to remember the injustices, real or imagined, from the rest of the country. And believe it or not, it worked. Many in the Naples crowd would root for Argentina that night. (It didn’t hurt that SS Napoli was Maradona’s club team at the time, either.)
Finally, midway through the second half, Argentina broke through on Walter Zenga. His streak of 518 minutes without conceding a goal had ended, although that record has never been broken today.
(Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga set a record by not allowing a goal in World Cup play for 518 consecutive minutes. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)
Still, Argentina was running on fumes. Injuries and suspensions had all but decimated their roster. In that match, they would obtain six yellow cards, including a second yellow/red for midfielder Ricardo Giusti. Nevertheless, the negative tactics worked. As it would so many times that year, the match would be decided on penalty kicks. Could Argentina repeat their title, or would the hosts make the final?
Legendary defender Franco Baresi led off for Italy and scored. Jose Serrizuela followed for Argentina. Baggio and Burruchaga converted, and so did Luigi De Agostini and Julio Olarticoechea. It was 3-3 as midfielder Roberto Donadoni stepped up. Shockingly, he missed thanks to some inspired play from Argentina’s second-choice keeper Sergio Goycochea. Maradona scored to give Argentina the lead. It would be up to substitute midfielder Aldo Serena. He too, missed, and a weaker Argentina side would be in the finals. Sure, they’d have one more game to try to take third place, but many Italian fans went on to say they had never cried harder than that night.
(Argentina celebrate their penalty shootout win to get them into the final. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Further tears were to flow. The net day was July 4. England and West Germany. It would be a legendary match that later became known as “One Night in Turin.” These were two old rivals, at least in England’s mind, settling old scores. England had its best team in a generation. They were dying to face another rival in the final. They undoubtedly wanted revenge on Maradona. England manager Bobby Robson mentioned, “Win, and you’ll be immortal.” Regardless of the outcome, that match became immortal. Streets all over England were empty in the middle of the day.
The match started off slowly for both teams. While both teams had their chances, neither team could score. Surprisingly enough, England had been the more dominant side, but couldn’t put it away. One common criticism of England over the years was not just about tactics, but also that they tended to wear down much earlier in higher temperatures. But they were still in it.
But as usual, the West Germans were efficiently wearing the opposition down. Thirty minutes remained in the game when Die Mannschaft won a free kick. England lined up its wall preparing for the kick. Andreas Brehme took the kick. Racing out to block it was defender Paul Parker. But then the ball took a strange deflection. It hit Parker and floated upward. Shilton was a legend in England, but he was now forty years old and near the end of his career. It was over his head, and in the net. Soon to be united again, German fans had their own history to play for. It was 1-0 West Germany.
(An unlucky deflection off of Paul Parker – #12 – allowed West Germany to score the first goal. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Twenty minutes passed with no luck from England. But with England ten minutes away from elimination, Paul Parker had a chance for redemption. He got a ball in the German half, and played the ball forward to Gary Lineker. He ran onto it and poked it past keeper Bodo Illgner. And for once, the cynical English pundits rose to their feet. See why this match was legendary?
(Gary Lineker’s equalizer kept England in the match. Photo courtesy of BBC.)
As was the case with so many matches that year, it would require extra time. It was here that one man became an England legend, even if it wasn’t for the right reasons. As the years went on, England would grow the Premier League, oftentimes at the expense of the national team. Many fans complained that the Three Lions lacked passion. But not for Paul Gascoigne, known as “Gazza” for short. Gazza would never play in the World Cup again after this, and in fact never scored a World Cup. But his guile and heart were a dying breed in English football, or at least that was the perception. Unfortunately, those two qualities also got him in trouble.
The ball was being contested near the midfield line. Gascoigne went in for a tackle on German back Thomas Berthold. Gascoigne went in late and fouled Berthold. All of England groaned. And it would get worse – Gascoigne received a yellow card. That meant that if England made the final, he wouldn’t be eligible to play due to accumulating two yellow cards (not in the same match, but it works the same way). Suddenly, Gazza was holding back tears. He was devastated. It was so upsetting for him that Lineker created another legendary moment – he turned toward the bench and pointed at his eye. He said in the general direction of the bench, “Have a word with him.”
(Gary Lineker attempts to console Paul Gascoigne. Photo courtesy of BBC.)
England still had their chances late in the match. A header was played down into the West Germany box. Chris Waddle was wide open and fired. Illgner was beaten. Then at the last second, it curved slightly and hit the bottom of the post and ricocheted back out. Less than an inch the other way and England would be in that final. Agonizingly, Guido Buchwald also hit the post for the West German team, which also bounced out by less than an inch. It, too, would come down to penalties.
England had never played in a shootout before, and they were nervous. It would become England’s Achilles heel over the year. Nevertheless, they led off and Lineker scored. But as mentioned, Shilton was slowing down. Andreas Brehme scored to level it up. Beardsley and Matthäus scored; 2-2. Platt and Karl-Heinz Riedle also converted. Like the previous semifinal, it was 3-3 with everything to play for. Up stepped Stuart Pearce. He was one of England’s hard men and nicknamed “Psycho” for playing on a broken leg twice during his career. But now he was scared. He wasn’t looking toward the net, his shoulders were hunched tight, and his shorts were hiked up. He fired towards the goal. But it was hit too low. Bodo Illgner got there first and made the save. Now England’s momentum had been lost. Olaf Thon converted to put the West Germans up 4-3. It was up to Chris Waddle.
Waddle was looking for redemption on his previous miss. He also had taken some joking looks for his ridiculous-looking mullet. He raced up, kicked the ball….and then helplessly watched as it sailed high and wide over the top. It would become a common refrain for England as the years went on, especially when they were eliminated on penalties: “And England are out of the World Cup.” The Germans were in the final, a rematch of the previous final. The English were heartbroken, and now had to play the consolation game. As they were leaving the pitch, a legendary photo of Gazza appeared. He was in tears, clutching his shirt. It was his last World Cup match.
(Chris Waddle missed the penalty to lose the semifinal for England. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)
(Paul Gascoigne burst into tears after his World Cup career ended. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)
Third place match
England were devastated, and yet they were forced to play one more game. But Italy would hold on to win 2-1. It was a fantastic final twenty minutes, with Roberto Baggio (71′) leading off the scoring, and Chris Pratt equalizing. But one last time, Salvatore Schillaci came through for the Azzurri, on a penalty (86′). It was his sixth and final goal of the World Cup to lead all scorers. Sadly for him, his international career was over shortly afterwards. He scored only one more goal after that, a match which Italy lost. “Le notti magiche di Totò Schillaci” were over almost as soon as they began. Schillaci was the ultimate World Cup one-shot wonder. He bounced around the leagues in Italy and finished his career in Japan, never regaining his form. And for most of England’s players, it was their last appearance in the World Cup for them as well.
For the final in Rome, it would be West Germany and Argentina in a match very few wanted to see. Argentina had only scored five goals in the entire tournament, and their cynical tactics were winning them no fans. Maradona was booed during the Argentinian national anthem, and he cursed out the neutral and German fans twice during its playing. The crowd wasn’t on his side this time.
Truth be told, there’s very little to write about. Returning for the final, Edgardo Codesal struggled to keep the game from getting reckless. There was diving, bad fouls everywhere, you name it. With twenty-five minutes remaining, substitute back Pedro Monzon became the first player to be sent off in the final of the World Cup. He deserved it, too, going in spikes high on Klinsmann.
(Pedro Monzon was the first player ever sent off in a World Cup Final. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.)
Even worse, Argentina seemed to be trying to play for the shootout, not really trying that hard to score. Unfortunately enough, the Germans played into their tactics. Finally, with about five minutes to go, another controversial foul led to a penalty for West Germany. Andreas Brehme strolled up and took it, and scored. The Germans had the lead, but it felt undeserved.
(Andreas Brehme scored the winner for West Germany. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Later in the match, another Argentinian player, Gustavo Dezotti, was sent off for a wrestling-style tackle on Jurgen Kohler after the latter attempted to waste time. Codesal couldn’t wait for the game to end. Finally, it did. West Germany had won their third title, but it was ugly. Argentina had been arguably the worst team ever to make the final: they were the first to be shut out, and had only one shot on goal the entire match. As it turned out, the era of high-scoring finals was now a thing of the past.
(West Germany carries off the trophy in victory. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.)
Franz Beckenbauer became the second person to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach. Brazil’s Mario Zagallo was the first.
As a result of injuries and suspension, Argentina had lost over half their roster by the final. Their five goals remains a low for any team making the final.
Paul Gascoigne stirred up controversy in the famous Celtic-Rangers rivalry in Glasgow several years later. As a member of Rangers, he scored and then mimed playing a flute, which is a symbol of Protestant solidarity. While he played innocent, many Celtic fans were furious.
This tournament set a record low of an average of 2.21 goals per game, which still stands to this day. Sixteen red cards were awarded as well.
As a result of this World Cup, FIFA set new rules: it would now reward three points for a win instead of two and outlawed a player passing the ball back directly to his keeper in an attempt to waste time.
England had several fans who were able to infiltrate the hooligan subculture. One 34-year-old fan was denied entry, found a way in anyway, fought a fight with Dutch fans, and then was arrested and sent home by Italian authorities.
Not including Sweden in 1938 (following a withdrawal), Ireland became the first team to make the quarterfinals without winning a match.
The Trinidad and Tobago president was later indicted by FIFA on fraud charges. He was partially responsible for the overcrowding in the final match with the U.S.
During the group stage, Cameroon became the first team to win a group with a negative goal differential. They scored three and allowed five for a differential of -2.
If you’ll remember, Tomáš Skuhravý scored a hat trick against Costa Rica in the round of sixteen. Amazingly, all three of them were scored on headers. Only Germany’s Miroslav Klose has repeated that feat (in 2002).
West Germany played three more matches before reunifying in late 1990. As a united German team, they qualified automatically as champions.
This was the final World appearance for the Soviet Union before its dissolution.
Later in his career, Jürgen Klinsmann joined English club Tottenham Hotspur. He celebrated his first goal by proving his critics right – he probably was diving. Despite this, many English fans loved him for this.
In Italian culture, the number 17 is considered unlucky. Occasionally, Roman numerals would be transposed, so XVII could be read as “VIXI.” The problem is that the latter translates as “I have lived,” or more loosely, “I am dead.” Roberto Donadoni, who missed a penalty in the semifinals against Argentina, wore jersey #17.
Czechoslovakia midfielder and captain Ivan Hasek is the cousin of famous NHL hockey goalie Dominik Hasek.
For all of the storylines, the lack of drama and ugly play made the 1990 FIFA World Cup one that many prefer to forget. Four years later, a country that seemed to be the antithesis of everything about the beautiful game would host. Not only would their team make a shocking run to the knockout stages, but they would shatter attendance records. It was America’s turn to host the world’s game.
References and Sources
Turandot (Giacomo Puccini)
World Cup Most Shocking Moments (documentary)
England’s Worst Ever Football Team (documentary)
Gazza’s Tears: The Night That Changed Football (documentary)
Soccer Men (Simon Kuper)
The Ultimate Book of Sports Jerks (Michael Freeman)
And Gazza Misses the Final (Rob Smyth, Scott Murray)
Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer (George Vecsey)
Soccer’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Clumsy Keepers, Clever Crosses, and Outlandish Oddities (John Snyder)
Soccer’s Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves, and Fantastic Free-Kicks (Jeff Carlisle)
¡Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America (Andreas Campomar)
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet’s Biggest Sports Event (David Hirshey, Roger Bennett)
The Mammoth Book of the World Cup (Nick Holt)