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The 10 best moments of Italia '90

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Nick Miller reflects fondly on 10 of the tournament's greatest moments.

10. Michel's hat trick

As with any World Cup, there were of course any number of brilliant goals, and in those days one of the joys was that they were often scored by players about whom the average fan knew little -- if they'd heard of them at all. There were plenty of these in the group stages, from this solo effort by Andreas Ogris for Austria against the USA, to Davor Jozic's exceptional chest-volley in Yugoslavia vs. Colombia, to Belgium forward Marc Degryse's "hearty lob" against South Korea.

There are many, many more similar efforts, but while those players managed one exceptional goal, Spanish midfielder Michel scored three, notching one of the more aesthetically pleasing hat tricks the World Cup has seen. The first was a perfectly judged back-post volley after a deep cross from the left, the second a postage-stamp free kick carefully curled into the top corner and the third a shimmy left then a shimmy right before an emphatic finish into the bottom corner. Spain wouldn't really get it together for another generation, but they certainly had their moments.

9. Ireland beat Romania on penalties

The 1990 World Cup was a tournament almost defined by penalty shootouts. Of course, the most widely remembered was England's semifinal defeat to West Germany, but hosts Italy fell by the same method at the same stage to Argentina, who had only just made it themselves after a brilliant performance by keeper Sergio Goycochea had seen them through in a shootout against Yugoslavia.

However, right up there in the drama stakes was Ireland's victory over Romania, which had ended 0-0 after extra time despite the efforts of Gheorghe Hagi, and went to a shootout. The first eight kicks were all converted, despite Romanian keeper Silviu Lung coming very close to saving a couple. Then Daniel Timofte stepped up, looking nervous yet simultaneously excessively casual, and his weak effort was pushed away by Pat Bonner. "I never talk about it," a still-anguished Timofte said recently. "I have never even watched footage of it."

So it was up to David O'Leary -- who had barely played in the previous four years after a disagreement with manager Jack Charlton and had only come on as a substitute in extra time and had not previously taken a competitive penalty -- to convert the decisive kick. "A nation holds its breath ..." said RTE commentator George Hamilton as O'Leary stepped forward. "Yes! We're there!" he exclaimed, after O'Leary had lifted the ball to Lung's left and Ireland were through. "We're just proud to be part of history," said Bonner in his post-match interview, while clutching a glass of champagne.

8. Lothar Matthaus walks through the Yugoslavia team

History has perhaps not been especially kind to the individual reputation of Lothar Matthaus. His medal collection (eight domestic titles, three domestic cups, two UEFA Cups, a European championship, a World Cup, a Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the year) rivals anyone's, but he is often forgotten in talk of the greatest of his generation.

"I admire Platini, I admire Maradona, but to win, I need Matthaus," said Giovanni Trapattoni, Matthaus' manager at Bayern Munich and Internazionale. High praise indeed, but when you consider his performances during Italia '90, it's entirely justified. The high point of his individual showings was the goal he scored in West Germany's 4-1 group-stage demolition of Yugoslavia.

The German skipper collected the ball well inside his own half and blustered through the midfield with a power that belied his 5-foot-8 stature before skipping past a lunging challenge with a ballerina's delicacy then reverting to the blunderbuss, lashing a low shot past the keeper. The defending might not have been up to scratch, but it was a majestic combination of power, pace and skill, just as that West German team was.

7. Rene Higuita goes walkabout

Roger Milla wasn't supposed to be at the 1990 World Cup. The Cameroonian hero had retired from international football and was spending his time in Reunion, a tiny island in the Pacific. However, after something of a crisis in the lead-up to the tournament, national president Paul Biya sent out an SOS to Milla, who returned to the fray and to the squad when they travelled to Italy.

Colombia goalkeeper Rene Higuita chases down Roger Milla after losing possession in midfield.

He didn't actually start a game in the tournament, his 38-year-old legs only considered lively enough for a string of substitute appearances, but what appearances they were, one of which saw him humiliate another eccentric and entertaining character to emerge from that World Cup. There's probably a lengthy thinkpiece to be written arguing that Rene Higuita was a forerunner of the "sweeper-keeper" and helped to shape someone like Manuel Neuer's game, but the theory only really holds if the pioneer in question gets things right and doesn't horribly embarrass himself in a high-profile moment.

"With Rene as sweeper, we have 11 outfield players," said Colombia coach Francisco Maturana before the tournament. In the second half of extra time in Colombia's second-round game against Cameroon, though, it all went wrong. Milla had already beaten Higuita with a rocket of a finish into the top corner to give Cameroon the lead, when the keeper wandered out of his goal and squared the ball to defender Luis Carlos Perea. In truth, Perea stitched Higuita up by returning it dangerously to him, but it didn't mean Higuita had to therefore try a dangerous drag-back, which Milla then whipped away from him, ran away and slotted into the empty net.

6. Frank Rijkaard spits at Rudi Voeller

It's rather sweet that some English football fans think their rivalry with Germany is the most significant one for both sides in European football, when of course the real enmity for Germany is against the Netherlands. And that manifested itself in a rather disgusting form during the second-round game between the two sides.

A running argument between Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Voeller culminated in the former launching a mini-projectile of saliva into the permed mullet of the latter, not once but twice. The look on Voeller's face as he feels moisture where there should be none, tries to work out what has just happened, rules out every other possibility and comes to the realisation that, yes, Rijkaard had just enthusiastically spit into his hair, is quite a remarkable thing.

In between the two spitting incidents, both men were sent off (the latter occurrence took place as they were trudging toward the tunnel) for a penalty-area disagreement that still baffles Voeller. "I still can't understand why the ref sent me off and I guess he will take it to his grave," he said years later. The two men eventually made up, Rijkaard apologising when they faced each other for Milan and Roma, their club sides, according to Uli Hesse in "Tor! The Story of German Football," with the Dutchman saying "he'd lost his head, explaining he'd been under emotional pressure, having separated from his wife shortly before the World Cup."

5. Benjamin Massing takes out Claudio Caniggia

"The general intention seemed to be not so much to break Caniggia's legs as actually to separate them from the rest of his body." That's how Pete Davies described the tackle on Claudio Caniggia in his book on Italia '90 "All Played Out," and it's an exceedingly apt description of a foul that would arguably set a tone for the competition. In all, 16 red cards were dished out in the tournament, a then-record (now held by the 2006 edition, which -- albeit in more games -- saw a whopping 28 players dismissed).

The violence began in the opening game, as Cameroon upset defending champions Argentina, in more ways than one. Andre Kana-Biyik was the first to be ushered from the field -- perhaps a little harshly considering what was to come -- for tripping Caniggia six minutes before they took the lead. Then came Benjamin Massing.

Remarkably, Massing's thresher of a challenge officially led to his dismissal via two yellow cards, referee Michel Vautrot seemingly becoming rather overcome by the whole affair by issuing red then yellow as Massing made his way from the field. Such was the violence in the challenge that Massing's boot detached itself from his foot, and as he went to retrieve it aimed a kick of his stockinged feet at Jorge Burruchaga, who was needlessly on his way to urge the referee to take punitive action.

Referees had been instructed to clamp down on foul play during the tournament, but this sending off was hardly the result of draconian officiating, more the apt punishment for a moment of terrific violence. "Players will behave in a decorous manner in all phases of the match," said an optimistic FIFA general secretary before the tournament, of the aims for the new disciplinary guidelines. That general secretary was, as it happens, one Sepp Blatter.

4. England vs. Cameroon

After 25 minutes of England's quarterfinal against Cameroon, Stuart Pearce advanced down the left, crossed deep into the area for David Platt, who headed home and life seemed pretty sweet for the English. However, slowly, the game started to swing back in Cameroon's favour, going close a number of times before a one-two punch not long after the hour mark sent England into a panic. First came a penalty by Emmanuel Kunde and then a sublime move finished off by Eugene Ekeke, moments after coming on as a substitute, putting them 2-1 ahead. And, just as in the opening game against Argentina, the underdogs thoroughly deserved their lead, being much the better team than the stilted and nervous English.

It would take something unlikely for England to get back into the game, and under Bobby Robson, nothing was more unlikely than being awarded two penalties -- the same number that they had won in the previous 91 games of his stewardship. But awarded they were, with first Kunde tripping Gary Lineker, the same man converting with eight minutes of normal time remaining before in extra time Paul Gascoigne set Lineker away with a brilliant pass.

"Before the Cameroon game, when a lot of the press were at training, I deliberately practiced a penalty I wouldn't take," Lineker said in 2014, and his preparation and deception came in handy. Lineker was felled by a combination of keeper Thomas N'Kono and defender Benjamin Massing, and duly hammered the penalty straight down the middle and England won perhaps the most thrilling game of the tournament.

3. Gascoigne's yellow card

"He has actually, Gascoigne, got a yellow card and I ... oh, dear. Oh, dear me. He's going to be out of the final, if England get there." John Motson greeted the booking that Paul Gascoigne received for his lunging foul on West Germany's Thomas Berthold as only John Motson could, announcing that the most exciting talent in English -- perhaps, at the time, world -- football would be suspended from the next game, as if he had just realised there wouldn't be enough crumpets for the vicar and his wife at high tea.

At 23, it looked like Gascoigne would have much greater things ahead of him, even with his confirmed "daft as a brush" status, but this would be the last game he ever played at a World Cup. "I didn't realise that would be the only World Cup I would play in, y'know?" Gascoigne said years later.

Terry Butcher, left, consoles Paul Gascoigne after England were knocked out in the semifinal by West Germany.

For many of Gascoigne's problems, one must have sympathy and understanding, but this one was entirely his fault. Not perhaps the second foul that actually confirmed the suspension that was an overenthusiastic but not particularly brainless lunge, but the first, which came earlier on in the tournament against Belgium.

Playmaker Enzo Scifo had the ball around 10 yards inside the England half, was facing the touchline, angled back toward his own goal, with few options. In short, he was going nowhere. However, Gascoigne still thought it sensible to plough through Scifo's calf, earning a deserved and entirely pointless booking that would eventually prove enormously significant for him and England overall. Let's not forget that Gascoigne was down to take a penalty in the semifinal shootout against West Germany, which England might not even have required if he had been in a sound frame of mind for the remainder of normal play.

2. Roberto Baggio's goal

Roberto Baggio had already enjoyed a pretty impressive 1990 before the World Cup even started. His sale to Juventus by Fiorentina had caused Viola fans to basically lay siege to the club's headquarters for three days, so the hype surrounding Italian football's latest boy wonder was fierce by the time the tournament came around.

Baggio was actually left out of the Italy team for the first couple of games by manager Azeglio Vicini, with Gianluca Vialli and Andrea Carnevale preferred. But after a couple of underwhelming performances from the chosen pair, Baggio he was introduced alongside Salvatore Schillaci against Czechoslovakia.

With 12 minutes remaining, Baggio exchanged passes with Roma playmaker Giuseppe Giannini just inside the Czech half, taking out two defenders in the process, advanced toward the penalty area and produced the most exquisite, subtle shimmy to wrong-foot defender Julius Bielik completely. Bielik looked terrified and discombobulated, retreating as if he were being chased by ghouls. Baggio then rearranged his feet in a sort of pseudo step-over causing Bielik to spin around 360 degrees, unable to do anything to prevent what was about to happen. All Baggio then had to do was shape to hit the ball to keeper Jan Stejskal's left, stroke it to his right and cause a nation to lose their minds.

1. Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biyik shock Argentina

Cameroon were 500-1 outsiders going into the World Cup, the absolute longest of shots and predicted to be the whipping boys of a Group B that featured holders Argentina, plus a strong Romania and the ever-dangerous USSR. Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo barely considered them a threat while even their own goalkeeper, Joseph-Antoine Bell, described them as having "no chance of coping with Argentina or any other team" -- comments that saw him dropped from the team.

However, the defending champions were abysmal in the curtain-raiser. Diego Maradona was marked/kicked out of the game and hardly anything went right for the champions, something that came to a head after 67 minutes.

Francois Omam-Biyik scores the winner for Cameroon over holders Argentina.

Cameroon were already down to 10 men when they won a free kick on the left wing, which Emmanuel Kunde rather unconvincingly chipped into the area, where it was half flicked on, half hoofed high into the air by Cyrille Makanaky before reaching Francois Omam-Biyik. The forward rose into the air, but sort of mistimed his jump so by the time the ball reached him he was on his way down, but it was enough to avoid the nominal marking attempt by Nestor Sensini and get an effort on goal.

It was a weak header that floated straight at keeper Nery Pumpido's feet, but at some point during its flight the object ceased to be a football and became a bowling ball covered in Vaseline, as Pumpido somehow allowed it to squirt through his hands and trickle into the net. Pumpido would break his leg in the next game and never play for Argentina again. "This was no fluke, the better team won," wrote David Lacey in the Guardian. "The French referee sent off two Cameroon players but such was their superiority that the Africans still finished looking as if they had more men on the pitch than their hapless opponents."

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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