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How Italia '90 made England fall back in love with football

Italia '90 was not my first World Cup. That was Mexico '86, a fine tournament in its own right that I watched mainly in pyjamas, defying bed-time as best I could. It was tense, it was exciting and for this England fan it was, thanks to Diego Maradona, devastating.

But Mexico '86 didn't really change anything unlike Italia '90, which seemed to change everything. It sits in the history books now as a something of a dividing line between old football and new football.

On a global level, the world sat up and took notice of the magnificent Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions, -- remember how impressed you were when you first heard that nickname -- became the first African team to reach the quarterfinal and beat Argentina, Romania and Colombia, before very nearly taking out England.

On a technical level, Italia '90 tolled the bell for shameless time-wasters everywhere as FIFA began to lose their patience with back passes. For years, any team under pressure had been able to buy themselves time by knocking the ball back to the goalkeeper, who would then simply pick it up, roll the ball back out to the defender, wait for the resulting back pass and then pick it up again. And again. And again.

It wasn't until 1992 that FIFA were finally able to outlaw that particular dark art but it was the shenanigans of Italia '90 that forced their hand. Interestingly, Liverpool haven't won the league since.

In England, the changes were more profound. Football had been a pariah sport, seen as a violent, nasty affair watched by thugs in dilapidated and sometimes deadly stadia. As that perception grew and policing duly became more heavy-handed, so attendances fell. Across the country, big teams were drawing smaller and smaller crowds.

Ciao, a stick figure pictured here with then-England boss Bobby Robson, was the mascot for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Little was expected of England at Italia '90 but Bobby Robson's side almost went all the way to glory.

And it wasn't as if the England team were any good anyway. It was 24 years since the World Cup triumph of 1966 and they hadn't come close to winning anything since. Manager Bobby Robson, in charge since the departure of Ron Greenwood in 1982, was widely despised. After a disastrous Euro '88 campaign, one newspaper made its feelings clear: "In The Name of God, Go!" barked its back page. Robson did not go. A few months later, England were held to a draw by Saudi Arabia. "In the name of Allah, Go!" blasted the same paper.

Robson had been spat on by supporters and pilloried in the press, but when he decided that enough was enough and agreed a deal to join PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup, he was publicly castigated as a traitor. You might say that the poor man couldn't win. But he very nearly did.

As if anyone needed reminding of the European Championships two years earlier, England were tossed into a group with Holland and the Republic of Ireland, both of whom had beaten them in West Germany, as well as Egypt. Hopes were low and the mood was ugly.

England were kept on the island of Sardinia, a kind of hooligan quarantine zone for the nation that just five years earlier had seen its clubs banned from European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster.

A grim 1-1 draw between England and the Republic of Ireland in the opening game drew the wry, if geographically inaccurate headline, "No Football Please, We're British," from one newspaper. Few would have been upset to see England knocked out early. But then they did something that no-one had expected: They improved.

After consultation -- or arguments, depending on who you believe -- with his players, Robson shifted to a sweeper system and England claimed a credible 0-0 draw against the Dutch, the European champions and one of the favourites to win the tournament. Then they beat Egypt, something that neither the Dutch nor the Irish had managed to do, to finish at the top of their group.

In the last 16, England rode their luck against Belgium. Guy Thys' side hit the woodwork three times and penalties beckoned before Paul Gascoigne, a wobbly man-child who had only played himself into the squad with a majestic friendly performance vs. Czechoslovakia two months earlier, stepped up to take a free-kick in the 119th minute. He put so much air on the ball that it took an eternity to fall towards David Platt but when it did, it was quickly smashed into the back of the net.

Back home in England, interest was growing. This was a time long before online box sets, digital television and games consoles. There were just four terrestrial channels, so even people who weren't passionate about football might find themselves watching it simply because there was nothing else on. From the safety of their armchairs, a fresh audience began to stir.

Paul Gascoigne, right, was one of the players of the tournament and stirred the emotions of fans in England.

This England team was a marketing man's dream. Gary Lineker was the pin-up striker, tanned and well-mannered while John Barnes and Chris Waddle brought flair from the flanks. Gascoigne was as over-excited as a six-year-old at his own birthday party, but brought a talent that even a first-time viewer could tell was entirely out of the ordinary. At the back, Terry Butcher and Stuart Pearce were men's men, grizzled and brave. There was something for everyone.

And surely they were essentially in the semifinals now? Only Cameroon stood in their way and no African team had ever reached the quarterfinals let alone the last four. Ah, foolish hubris. England, like everyone else in the tournament, underestimated their opponents and very nearly paid a heavy price. Having led at half-time, they were rocked by two goals in four minutes that left them on the brink of elimination and humiliation.

It was Lineker who saved the day, converting a penalty seven minutes before the end and another in extra-time. Two thrilling games in less than a week, both ending in English triumph? Middle England liked this a lot while the negativity and bile that had filled the tabloids at the start of the tournament was hastily dumped, replaced by flag-waving, drum-pounding jingoism. The players were household names and even Robson, in his trademark light grey suit, was being praised.

Perhaps, somewhere in the multiverse, this story has a happy ending. Maybe out there in the infinite alternatives, there are worlds were England exacted sweet vengeance on Maradona's Argentina in the final in Rome. In these scenarios, Robson waves the most prestigious trophy of them all at his critics, before heading off to the Netherlands. However, in reality as we know it, it all ended in the semifinals.

England could not beat West Germany. West Germany for that matter, could not beat England. It took a penalty shootout to separate them, a trial of nerve that followed the heartbreaking emotional collapse of Gascoigne, booked and reduced to tears by the knowledge that he would play no part in the final, should England have progressed.

His chubby red face, trembling lower lip and bobbing Adam's apple filled screens from Penzance to Penrith. Over 26 million people, more than half the nation's population, were watching as one taboo fell after another. A grown man was crying and it was okay. We were watching England and it was exciting. We were all so proud and that felt weird.

But penalties. Bloody penalties echoing through eternity. Not just this shootout -- England's first -- but the shoot-outs that would follow in 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. England, wooed back to football, expected better than to have to live through that again and again and again. It ended with Waddle, whose penalty rose over the bar like a startled pigeon.

As Gascoigne sobbed his heart out again, Robson, paternal and wise, took him in his arms. "Don't worry," he told him. "You've been one of the best players in the tournament. You've been magnificent. You've got your whole life ahead of you. This is your first."

But it was his last: Gascoigne would never play in a World Cup again.

Six years later, England would host the European Championships, but it was a different country by then, in part thanks to what had been set in motion in the summer of 1990. Middle Englanders, it transpired, did want football after all; just not the football that had gone before. They didn't want to see violence and fear for their safety. Instead, they wanted all-seater stadiums and exotic foreign players. They wanted to bring their kids to games.

All over the country, people who had previously expressed no interest whatsoever in football were queuing up to tell you that they'd always liked it really. Celebrities who wouldn't have ever gone near a stadium were latching onto Manchester United or Liverpool or, in certain cases, both of them.

Euro '96 marked the redemption of English football in the eyes of the world. It also set us down a path that would lead to sky-rocketing ticket prices, pay-per-view television, movie star salaries and a creeping disenfranchisement among fans.

Was all this was for good or for ill? That is for wiser minds to debate. But never underestimate how much one summer 25 years ago changed everything you know about football.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.


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