Tears of a Clown

1990 – Italy

“Even you, o Princess,
in your cold room,
watch the stars,
that tremble with love and with hope.
But my secret is hidden within me,
my name no one shall know…
On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines.
And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!…”

Italia 90 -in terms of passion and drama on the pitch it wont rank high on the World Cup-o-meter but off it was a different matter. The poem above is part of the literal translation of Nessun Dorma – possibly the most famous operatic song in the world, written by Puccini and sung by Pavarotti on the eve of the finals.

The good old internet wasn’t around in 1990 but I had managed to find a translation of the words in Mason Halls in Gravesend (a sort of eclectic independent forerunner to Tesco) and I liberally used the words throughout the decade to woo the girls. You see despite the presence of alcohol the best way to get your girl was through the “palabras de amor” – the words of love. Slip in a bit of Latin, Spanish or Italian and they were putty in my hands.

So 8th June 1990. After my pathetic attempts at trying to strike up love/lust as a 16 year old when the Mexican World Cup took place, I had matured. In fact I had peaked too early because in 1989 I met a girl who I worked with. Less than a year later we were engaged. From memory I proposed as a drunken dare in the footwell of a Pink Fiat Panda, and the next morning lived to regret it.

It was a relationship doomed to failure. Quite why I didn’t take one look at my prospective mother-in-law and head straight for the door I don’t know. It wasn’t as if I was seduced by the sex – again if I would have picked up on the early warning signs I would have been a once a month man. The thing that really changed me can be summed up in two words – CRAFT FAIRS. I was forced to give up my one love in life, football, for the sake of going to craft fairs. My promising, even if I do say so myself, playing career was cut back to a game a month and my visits to Upton Park dried up completely. This was, and is, the only girl I have “dated” that did not get football. and for that reason the 1990 World Cup will go down as a black period in my life.

The build up had been so promising. Has there ever been a better football song than New Order’s World in Motion? Even John Barnes sounded a credible rap artist, and better than the Anfield Rap effort of 1988 although to this day I still cannot work out what Keith “Dad of Lilly” Allen was doing in the background of the video.

These were also the dark days of English football. Hooliganism was still an ever present at games, and following the England team abroad was problematic. So problematic in fact that when the draw was made for the tournament, lo and behold the England games were miraculously scheduled to all be played in Sardinia – effectively turning the island into a huge temporary penal colony. Bobby Robson had stuck with many of the players who had flopped so badly in the 1988 European Championships in Germany, with the main addition of Paul Gascoigne who had impressed during the qualifying tournament.

The tournament kicked off with World Cup Champions Argentina taking on the improving minnows of Cameroon on a sunny evening in Milan’s San Siro. As with the last three tournaments there was a shock on the cards as the South Americans fell behind to Francois Oman-Biyk’s header in the 67th minute that keeper Pumpido could only fumble into the net. However the story of the game has to be the “robust” tackling of the Africans that led to two red cards, including possibly the worst tackle in the tournament’s history by Benjamin Massing. I still laugh at his stocking’d feet kick out at the on rushing Argentina players – pure quality.

The 11th June was the first big day of the tournament for us Brits. First up was a little matter of Scotland v Costa Rica. Costa who? said the Scots, obviously forgetting about Yugoslavia in 1974, Iran in 1978 and Denmark in 1986. I bunked off work early and came home (and not to the football free house) and sat down to watch this magnificent Scottish team “Say it with Pride” according to their long forgotten World Cup song.

And the Scots didn’t fail to disappoint, going down 1-0 to a country few had heard of let alone could place on a map. With Sweden and Brazil making up the group the omens were not good for the Tartan Army. Meanwhile events down in Sardinia had taken a turn for the worse. The England fans ran amok in the centre of Cagliari in Sardinia, sunbathing at will in the sunshine and drinking, shock horror, beer. They were then route marched to the concrete monstrosity of the Stadio Sant’Elia along with the Irish fans some hours before the kick off. The tension and excitement grew as kick off neared – this was Ireland’s first World Cup and many of their players (and manager) were team mates in the English First Division with the English team.

What a let down. After a four year wait the game was a drab as my sex life at the time. Moribund is a good word to describe it. Yes, we know it was hot, and yes we know that neither team could afford to lose but neither team really wanted to win. Lineker put England ahead in the 8th minute, but a mistake late on by substitute Steve McMahon let in Kevin Sheedy to equalise. The good news was that Holland only managed a 1-1 draw with Egypt the following night meaning a win against the Dutch would effectively send England through.

Other memorable moments from the opening set of games were impressive performances by the Germans, with Lothar Matthaus in fantastic form in the 4-1 against Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia’s 5-1 win against the USA. These two games aside, excitement was hard to come by in the opening rounds.

Taxing the old grey matter here are the ten highlights from the opening rounds of the tournament.

1. The white elephant of Turin – The Stadio delle Alpi was built to replace the Stadio Communale in time for the tournament. It was based in a barren wasteland miles from anywhere and with appalling sightlines and facilities. In the opening rounds it hosted all of Brazil’s games but every aspect of the stadium was heavily criticised. Twenty years on the stadium is partly way through a reconstruction although but Juventus and Torino prefer the refurbished Communale.

2.Plucky Scotland – A victory in their second game against Sweden put Scotland on the verge of qualifying. With 4 third place teams due to go through all they needed to do was avoid heavy defeat to Brazil. That was assuming of course that Sweden would beat Costa Rica. Which of course they didn’t do and Scotland once again were on that early plane home.

3. Bye bye to the Commies, Slavs and Slovaks – This would be the last tournament that we would see the names West Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia being used. In a logistical nightmare for UEFA the latter two would produce a further eight countries that would now be playing as national teams. All three had good tournaments and made it through to the Quarter Finals. Yugoslavia eventually went out to Argentina on penalties whilst West Germany were eventual champions.

4. Boring, Boring England – England’s group promised so much but delivered so little in terms of excitement. After the opening round with two 1-1 games, the next set of games brought two 0-0’s meaning all teams were level and the real prospect of drawing straws to see who went through was brought into play. Ireland and Holland drew again 1-1 meaning that a 0-0 draw would mean the straws would be out between England and Egypt. The deadlock was finally broken in the 64th minute when Mark Wright headed home and took England through and eliminated the Africans.

5. The divine pony tail and a mafia hitman – The home nation came into the tournament short of an in form forward. In their opening game the sold out crowd in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome waited impatiently for something against the Austrians, and with time running out Vicini turned to Salvatore Schillaci who had one substitute appearance to his name. Two minutes later the Scillian wrote himself into Italian footballing folklore with a goal that got them off to a winning start. Five days later they huffed and puffed to beat the USA 1-0 before turning in their best performance of the tournament with a 2-0 win over the Czech’s including a fantastic solo effort from the man who made mullets fashionable again, Roberto Baggio.

6. Spitting Heirs – Germany and Holland will never be the best of friends.  I have been to many a club game featuring teams from both and the crowd have got a bit excited.  So what did we expect from this second round game?  Fireworks, flares and tantrums?  Well the fans behaved themselves perfectly.  The players were another story.  Two of the more well known players, Dutch Frank Rikjaard and German Rudi Völler should have been preparing their 70’s style bubble perms and moustaches.  But they decided to engage in a bit of spitting instead.  Queue two red cards and both departed from the field with spittle hanging down from their curly locks.  What was said to provoke the situation in the first place is still a mystery.

7. Walkabout – After their surprise win against Argentina in the opening game, Cameroon had beaten Romania to qualify for the second round where they played Columbia.  With the game finishing goal less, Cameroon introduced Roger Milla.  Now Milla was “officially” thirty eight years old at the start of the tournament, but there was evidence to suggest he was well into his forties.  He put the Africans into the lead in the first minute of the second period and just three minutes later he scored again when Columbia keeper Rene Higuita decided to try and dribble the ball into the Cameroon half and was mugged by Milla on the half way line.  What proceeded was like something from a comedy film – an aging African being chased by a long haired Columbian.  Classic stuff.

8. Big Jack – After Ireland’s qualification from the group stages they had squeaked past Romania on penalties in Genoa in the second round.  Their reward was a quarter final against hosts Italy in Rome.  When in Rome what would a big ground of Irish catholics do?  Of course – go and see the Pope.  And what would you wear for such an auspicious occasion?  A track suit obviously!  The blessing lasted until the 38th minute when a long range Italian shot could only be parried by Packie Bonner and that little Scillian Schillaci was on hand to slot the ball home for the only goal of the game.

9. Peter bloody Shilton – I know he played about a million games for England, but he was well past his best in 1990.  He was hardly tested up to the quarter final, and then made some poor positional performances in the win against Cameroon.  But what was he doing in the semi final against Germany?  Firstly from Andreas Brehme’s free kick he was yards off his line, so when the ball took a huge deflection off Paul Parker leaving Shilton frantically peddling backwards before the ball looped over his head (have a look at Baddiel and Skinners recreation of the goal here).  After the game finished all square after extra time we went to penalties.  And he got absolutely nowhere near a single one.  Not surprisingly he retired from International football a few days later.

10. Throwing their toys out of the pram – The story of the tournament was negative tactics without a doubt.  And this was summed up by the fact that both semi-finals were decided on penalties.  Who to support in the final?  Argentina or Germany?  Hmm hardly the two most popular teams in England.  And what a classic it was…not.  A really awful final, only summed up by the petulance of the Argentinians who ended up with nine men (and were lucky to only have two sent off by their reaction to some of the decisions) when Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti were sent off either side of the deciding game, surprisingly enough a penalty by Andreas Brehme.

So the country went Gazza mad and the team in reaching the semi-finals came home heroes.  Quite how or why I don’t know.  We were a poor team in the poorest World Cup ever.  Poor quality – summed up my relationship at the time.  Could things get better four years later?  Only time will tell.

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