The 1990 World Cup in Italy remains the closest that England has come to World Cup glory since the heroics of 1966. Against the odds England managed to reach the semi-finals of the tournament only to be cruelly defeated by West Germany on penalties. Although the competition did not live long in the public’s memory, England’s semi-final clash conjured images that have helped to define English football. Moments such as Gazza’s tears and the penalty misses have become part of England’s World Cup heritage.
Italy was awarded the 1990 World Cup for the second time in its history. It was the tournament where FIFA attempted to step up its campaign to get the World Cup recognised as a global marketing phenomenon. Unfortunately, the tournament failed to live up to the hype and was arguably one of the worst in the history of the World Cup. The competition was characterised by negativity, foul play and many games being decided by penalties. There were very few memorable matches and no player really stood out as the best on show. Goals were generally at a premium but there was a record of 16 red cards and 164 bookings.
Going into the tournament England were seen as outsiders at best. They had even struggled to qualify for the World Cup, finishing second behind Sweden in their qualifying group, only making it by virtue of being the second best runners-up. At the 1988 European Championships they had finished bottom of their group.
England manager Bobby Robson had announced just before the tournament that he would be quitting the England job to return to club management with PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup. He had been under a lot of pressure from the media and results had been mixed during his eight years in charge. Robson had been vilified by the tabloids for his team selection and tactics. Just after the European Championships, following a draw in a friendly with Saudi Arabia, he had offered his resignation to the FA, which was rejected by the Chairman. Robson had been appointed England manager in 1982 after a successful period at Ipswich Town, following in the exact same footsteps as World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey.
The pre-tournament favourites were hosts Italy. Typically, their success was built around a solid defence although they did possess some attacking talent – Juventus striker Toto Schillaci provided the main goal threat for the Italians. Holders Argentina were also seen as contenders with Napoli’s Maradona polarising support in Italy. European champions Holland and South American heavyweights Brazil were also, as always, seen as possible winners.
England was never really considered among the front runners for the tournament, their form had been patchy and they lacked the quality of the top nations. But they were well organised at the back and had some creative talent in midfield. In goal was the vastly experienced Peter Shilton, who had not conceded a goal in 540 minutes during qualifying. The defence was marshalled by Rangers’ Terry Butcher alongside the youthful Des Walker. The team was led by captain-marvel Bryan Robson in central midfield. Partnering Robson was Tottenham’s Geordie maverick Paul Gascoigne, capable of winning a game with a moment of brilliance. It was down to the likes of Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes to create chances for England’s only top-class striker Gary Lineker. Due to UEFA banning English clubs in Europe in the 1980s, many English players lacked experience playing against foreign opposition.
England were drawn in Group F which pitted them against Holland, the Republic of Ireland and Egypt. It was a tricky group, especially as Holland had won Euro 1988 and had quality players such as Van Basten and Rijkaard in the team. England opened their campaign against the Republic of Ireland. Ireland was managed by World Cup winning defender Jack Charlton and there was a lot of rivalry between the two nations. England opened the scoring early on with a typical poacher’s goal from Gary Lineker. Ireland equalised on 73 minutes when Kevin Sheedy capitalised on an error by Steve McMahon to fire past Shilton. The game finished 1-1. England’s next game saw them take on the Netherlands. To help combat the threat of the Dutch forwards Bobby Robson switched to a 3-5-2 system with Mark Wright introduced as a sweeper. England enjoyed the better of the game but were held to a 0-0 draw. England also had two ‘goals’ ruled out by the referee.
Going into their final game against Egypt there was still plenty to play for in the group. All four teams were on two points each with an identical goal difference, making this a game that England could not afford to lose. Prior to the game they suffered a blow with the news that inspirational captain Bryan Robson was ruled out with an Achilles injury that would also exclude him from the rest of the tournament. In a tight game England won 1-0 thanks to a Mark Wright header from a Gascoigne free-kick. Despite an unconvincing victory, England topped their group ahead of the Republic of Ireland, having been forced to play all their group games on the island of Sardinia to try to prevent hooliganism from fans.
The Three Lions came up against Belgium in the second round of the tournament. Belgium had finished runners-up to Spain in their group but had recorded victories over Uruguay and South Korea. England returned to their sweeper system that they had used successfully against Holland, but the Belgians enjoyed the better of the game and created the best chances. They twice hit the woodwork but did not manage to score as the match stayed goalless over 90 minutes. Despite being second best in normal time England felt hard done by as they had a John Barnes goal ruled out for offside, although replays showed that he was in fact onside. The game looked to be going to penalties until the last minute of extra-time. Substitute David Platt superbly volleyed home a Gascoigne free-kick to send England into the quarter-finals.
The next opponents were the 1990 World Cup’s surprise package Cameroon. The ‘Indomitable Lions’ had caused a major shock in the opening match of the World Cup beating holders Argentina 1-0 with only nine men. They became the first African team to reach the quarter-finals with victory over Colombia. David Platt was again on target for England but with only eight minutes remaining they were trailing 2-1. However, some clumsy defending gifted England an equaliser as Lineker converted from the penalty spot. Another penalty from Lineker in extra-time saw England scrape into the semi-finals. They had got there through a mixture of good fortune and steely determination.
On reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, England manager Bobby Robson said: “We’ve got here, but I don’t know how.” So far England had yet to hit top form in the tournament, relying heavily on late goals and set-pieces to win matches. They were now up against a real football force in West Germany for a place in the final. The West Germans had impressed throughout the tournament and were strong in all departments. Coached by former World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer, they had players at the top of their game such as Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann. Many of the side played their football in Italy and so were comfortable with the surroundings.
The clash between the two old rivals produced a pulsating encounter and was one of the great World Cup semi-finals. England had the better of the first half and came closest to scoring through Waddle, Pearce and Gascoigne. At the other end Peter Shilton was relativel