1990 Italy


Germany and England had flair
But the game in Turin was all square
Then young Gazza did cry
And Chris Waddle missed high
So the Germans won through by a hair

The 1990 World Cup is widely regarded as one of the poorest World Cups ever. It generated a record low goals-per-game average of just 2.21- a record that still stands to date, and a then-record 16 red cards were handed out, including the first ever dismissal in a final.

Following the 1990 World Cup, the back-pass rule was introduced in 1992 to discourage time-wasting and overly defensive play, and wins were awarded three points in the group stage of the 1994 World Cup to encourage more attack-minded tactics and counter the strategy of playing for a draw.

What was going on in the world in 1990?

  • Nelson Mandela is relaeased from prison after 27 years behind bars
  • The Royal New Zealand navy discontinues its daily rum ration
  • Iraq invades Kuwait and events leading to the Gulf War are set in motion
  • Tim Berners-Lee begins his work on the world wide web
  • Germany is reunited on 3 October

Back to the World Cup – the format

No change from 1986 with 24 teams in 6 groups of 4, leading to a second round Last 16 knockout.


Three teams qualified for the first time: Costa Rica, the Republic of Ireland and the United Arab Emirates. Notable teams who failed to qualify included France, Poland, Portugal and Hungary. Mexico and Chile were both disqualified during the qualificaiton stage; Mexico for fielding an overage player in a youth event, and Chile for getting a match abandoned by feigning injury from a firework incident.

The UAE finished last in their group with no points. However, both Costa Rica and Ireland got through the group stage; Costa Rica had two wins over Scotland and Sweden to finish second to Brazil, and Ireland drew all three matches, against England, Netherlands and Egypt.

Tournament Facts and Records

Spain believed the seeding was contrived to ensure England would be placed in Group F, the group to be held off the Italian mainland, in a bid to contain England's hooliganism problems. Spanish coach Luis Suárez said, "We feel we've been cheated…they wanted to seed England and to send it to Cagliari at all costs. So they invented this formula". FIFA countered that "the formula was based on the teams' respective showings during the previous two World Cups. England merited the sixth position. This is in no way a concession to English hooliganism"

  • Ireland became the first team since Sweden in 1938 to reach the last eight in a World Cup finals tournament without winning a match.
  • Salvatore 'Toto' Schillaci top scored in the tournament with 6 goals
  • Negative tactics prevailed; 8 matches went to extra time, a record that still stands, and there were 4 penalty shootouts, only equlaled by the tally in 2006
  • Argentina became the first team to advance twice on penalties, the first finalist to fail to score in the final, and the first to have players sent off in the final
  • England's David Platt scored the latest opening goal in a match in World Cup history after 119 minutes of the Last 16 game against Belgium
  • Franz Beckenbauer became only the second man to win the World Cup as both a player and coach, and the first do so as captain and coach

Who should have won but didn't?

It is hard to come up with a stand out team who really deserved anything better than they got. In a complete role reversal of 1982 and 1986, neutrals were generally extremely glad that West Germany beat a petulant Argentina in the final. Argentina played as negatively as any team in the tournament and Maradona showed exactly the wrong kind of leadership, in marked contrast to 1986; the culmination of finishing the final with 9 players sums up what Argentina were all about in this World Cup.

It would have great for football to have a worthy outsider win, such as Cameroon, but despite their positive play they would have needed to win an additional 3 knockout matches to win the tournament, and really the quality was not quite there. England and Italy lost in the semi-finals and probably that was as about as much as each deserved. So, West Germany was indeed the best of a fairly poor bunch.

Hero: Roger Milla

Thank goodness for Roger Milla, who was always an entertaining factor, and who raised the profile of African football by his performances for Cameroon. At an alleged 38 years of age, he came out of international retirement to join the national squad at the last moment after a personal request from Cameroonian President Paul Biya. Milla's four goals and flamboyant goal celebrations made him one of the tournament's biggest stars as well as taking Cameroon to the last eight. This was further than any African nation had ever managed in a World Cup before; a feat only equalled twice since (by Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010). Their success was African football's biggest yet on the world stage, and FIFA subsequently decided to offer the CAF qualifying zone an additional place for the next World Cup tournament.

In their game with Colombia, Milla was introduced as a second half substitute with the game goalless, eventually breaking the deadlock midway in extra time. Three minutes later he netted a second after Colombian goalkeeper, René Higuita (he of the scorpion-kick fame) was dispossessed by Milla while well out of his goal, leaving the striker free to slot the ball into the empty net.

Villain: Frank Rijkaard

It is no secret that the Germans and the Dutch do not really like each other, and the feeling spilled over in the Last 16 encounter. After 22 minutes Rudi Völler and Frank Rijkaard were both dismissed after a goalmouth incident. As the players walked off the pitch together, Rijkaard spat at Völler. It is pretty disgusting, as you can see here, and Rijkaard cannot have any defence against the label of tournament villain. The star of this clip is Jack Charlton, who makes it pretty clear what he would have done had this happened to him!

Highlight – Semi-final match

The semi-final between West Germany and England was a game of notably high quality in a tournament defined by dross. The game could have gone either way and ended up in a penalty shootout, which of course the Germans won. The abiding memory from this game was the sight of Paul Gascoigne in tears after extra time. He had had an excellent match, but had picked up a booking which meant he was suspended for the next match, the final, if only England could prevail on penalties; it was all a bit too much for him, and for England's penalty takers.

Germany and England had flair
But the game in Turin was all square
Then young Gazza did cry
And Chris Waddle missed high
So the Germans won through by a hair

Controversy – Argentina spiking drinks

In the Last 16, Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 and there followed what sounded like a classic case of sour grapes, when Brazil's Branco claimed to have been offered by Diego Maradona and Ricardo Giusti at half time, water spiked with tranquilizers, apparently to slow him down a bit. At the time this was dismissed in the media as nonsense, but several years later Maradona confessed to this story on TV in Argentina. On the assumption that this therefore really is true, it further highlights the appalling mindset of Argentina during this World Cup.

Quick Facts:

  • Teams: 24
  • When: 08 June 1990 to 08 July 1990
  • Final: 08 July 1990
  • Matches: 52
  • Goals Scored: 115 (average 2.2 per match)
  • Attendance: 2,516,215 (average 48,388)

Verdict: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Ugly. Really there were very few redeeming features for Italia '90, except for Roger Milla's exploits for Cameroons, David O'Leary's penalty success taking Ireland in the quarter-finals and drivng Guinness sales to new heights, and the quality of the West Germany v England semi-final. We should, I suppose, be glad that Argentina did not win, in much the same way we needed West Germany to lose in 1982.


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