Pride, passion and tears: Italy’s 1990 World Cup campaign

Nostalgia is a term that describes sentimentality. It comes from the Greek words ‘nostos and algos’ which in turn means ‘home coming’ and ‘pain or ache’. It is easy to look back at the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and remember Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ and the incredible job done by the Italian nation as a whole. Many declare it was the intensity of these emotions that make it one of the greatest tournaments ever to be staged and that was in a large part down to the Azzurri.

Luciano Pavarotti’s ‘None shall sleep’, was instilled in the hearts of many through those obsolete televisions in the 90’s. During the tournament this was the case for many, as although the football was not always exciting, it did leave foreign viewers mesmerised by the end spectacle and many tried to watch every game.

The build-up itself for the Italians however, was perhaps somewhat more testing. A familiar pattern of public money going into the spider’s web of Italian local authorities saw left many stadiums unfinished. This continued right up until the kick off dates were close.

The Italians also had to endure, or enjoy (depending on your take) a rather different tune. Un Estate Italiana by Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennatowas certainly a song best reviewed by the bemused Italian public on the opening day in Milan, only the Mascot ‘Ciao’ seemed to enjoy it. With that all said and the home nation were more concerned about on field problems and no amount of musical accompaniment, late stadium developments or Coca Cola footballs featuring Ciao, could turn them away from this.

Italy had been chosen to host the World Cup after beating off a rival bid from the Soviet Union. The vote was conducted in 1984, after smaller and less impressive bids by England and Greece had been already been dismissed. This meant Italy would not feature in a qualifying campaign and as hosts would have to play warm up games instead.

Coach Azeglio Vicini had an array of talent to choose from as Serie A continued to dominate world football at this time. His problem came when he looked at his forward options. Despite being able to boast a front two of Gianluca Vialli (Sampdoria) and Andrea Carnevale (Napoli) he had to admit that two goals in their seven pre-tournament friendlies was far from good enough.  The rest of the world had his team seeded as favourites to win the competition but somehow it seemed stale. Something needed to change.

Italian football at the time was at the height of its powers. Napoli had Maradona and Careca and had only recently won the Scudetto, whilst Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard all played for Milan. Inter too boasted Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme, whilst Fiorentina had Roberto Baggio and Roma Giuseppe Giannini. This was only small percentage of the immense amount of talent that ran through the division’s veins. Vicini needed a goal scorer still and very soon he would find one.

The Italian team was soon finalised and on paper it looked as strong as any in the tournament. The goalkeeping position was filled by the incredibly talented Walter Zenga from Inter, whilst the veteran Stefano Tacconi backed him up. In defence they looked formidable, after all this was the age where the Italians were defined by the art. Franco Baresi (Milan), Captain Giuseppe Bergomi (Inter), Circo Ferrara (Napoli), Riccardo Ferri (Inter) and the young Paolo Maldini made up the majority of it.

Midfield saw Fernando De Napoli (Napoli), Nicola Berti (Inter), Giuseppe Giannini (Roma) mixed with Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Donadoni of Milan. Roberto Baggio would play in an undefined role whilst the lack lustre Gianluca Vialli and Andrea Carnevarle would be supplemented by the equally goal shy (on a national level) Roberto Mancini (Sampdoria) and Aldo Serena (Inter). The final choice in the forward department was Juventus’s 25 year old Slavatore Schillachi. With only one cap to his name he was the shock inclusion in the side as after seven seasons in Serie B the Sicilian had come up to net 15 goals in his first season with Juventus.

Italy were put in group that featured the unpredictable Czechoslovakia, the minnows USA and the dark horses Austria. They would play all their games in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and were strongly predicted to romp through their group. The rest of the games would be played in Florence in the then named Stadio Comunale but it would be in the Eternal City that the group would get underway.

Italy faced Austria to a fanfare of nationalistic fervour and euphoric optimism. The warm up games were long out of the mind and the hosts were expected to push aside the Germanic upstarts with incredible ease. Vicini kept faith with Vialli and Carnevale but this proved misguided as the Austrians were a match for them. Boasting players like Toni Polster, Andreas Herzog and keeper Klaus Lindenberger they had scared the hosts more than once. On 74 minutes Carnevale was brought off for the ‘wild card’ Schillachi. Four minutes later he would change the game. Donadoni started the move with a superb pass, Vialli made the crucial cross and Schilachi headed it passed a helpless Lindenberger. The crowd erupted and the little forward ran to the corner flag, arms aloft, eyes wide with that definitive Sicilian stare. It was a winning start, next up USA.

The USA came to Italy with few fans and even fewer hopes. This being said Italy fond them hard to break down and despite an early goal the Americans put up a defiant display. Only eleven minutes were on the clock when a superb ball in saw Carnevale jump over the ball, this splendid dummy allowed Giannini tip toe past the American defence, before firing home passed Tony Meola. After this many in the Stadio Olimpico expected more but the USA managed to defend with more vigour and surprisingly kept the score down to 1-0. Italy however marched on with two wins behind them.

Schillachi was handed a start against the Czechs after coming on again as a sub against the USA. The Eastern Europeans boasted players to be wary of, like Sparta Pragues Tomas Skuhravy and Michal Bilek. Even so, Italy now already through to the next round, decided to take their foot off the gas for the first time. Baggio too got his first start of the competition and the nation held its breath as their favourite took to the field. It was Schillachi however, who caused the early problem and after nine minutes a cleared corner was miss hit back into the box by Berti. Schillachi managed get on the end and of it and head home for the opener. The Roman crowd though, would leave the Olimpico talking on only one thing that night and that would be Italy’s second goal from Baggio. This goal was perhaps one of the best of the whole World Cup. It saw him pick the ball up from deep, he shimmied passed a defender, then a one-two with Donadoni, two more defenders fell in his wake, before he slotted the ball passed Jan Stejskal and collapsed in ecstasy. It was an ice cool finish, topped off with white hot celebrations.  Three qualifying games completed, three wins behind them and Baggio mania was in full swing.

Uruguay faced Italy next in the second round also in Rome but by now many Italians felt like fate had one hand on the trophy for them. The South Americans promised to be a match for them, especially with front players, such as Daniel Fonseca, Carlos Aguilera, Ruben Sosa and Captain, Enzo Franchescoli. The game itself was defined by the little Sicilian again when a long kick from Zenga found Baggio. His deft control found Serena, his delightful through ball found Schillachi who smashed it from twenty yards with such power that it dipped easily over Penarol’s Fernando Álvez.

The second was not long coming and would also feature Serena. This time Giannini turned provider crossing in from a free kick. Serena was on hand to head home on his 30th birthday and cap off a superb display by the Inter man.

The quarter finals saw Italy in Rome again hosting ‘Big Jack Charltons’ Ireland. The Irish has made the World Cup a colourful display but despite a visit to St Peters and The Pope, it was not to be. The biggest compliment to be given to the Irish is that they helped nullify Italy for long periods of the game making into a dull affair. That was until the 38th minute when the ball was beautifully moved between Giannini then Baggio before falling to Donadoni . His strike was only parried by Paddy Bonner who fell in the process, the ball was met by who else but Schillachi. He threaded the ball home through the eye of a needle. Italy would proceed to the Semi Finals still without conceding a goal.

The semi-final would take place in Naples, home of Maradona who of course played for Napoli. The Argentine even tried to persuade the Neapolitans to cheer for Argentina as his rhetoric denounced Italy as not classing the Naples born citizens as Italian.  Italy though had one hand on the trophy and looked towards Schillachi as the Semi- Finals loomed, after all they had not conceded a goal and Argentina were less than convincing.

This feeling of optimism seemed to be well thought as on 17 minutes Schillachi picked up the ball on the left hand side and started to weave his magic. Donadoni found Baggio who flicked the ball up in the air, then Vialli’s close range shot was only parried by Sergio Goycochea, who else but the little Sicilian was there to finish it off. The tough little striker from Sicily was hardly recognised before the World Cup but now with this goal he was joint top scorer with five.

In the second half the unthinkable happened. Italy conceded their first goal of the tournament. Maradona who had done little in the tournament played the ball out to Julio Olarticoechea, he provided a cross for Atalanta’s Claudio Caniggia. The long blonde haired forward had no right to win this but Walter Zenga who had been impeccable all World Cup, came charging out and was too late to punch. 1-1 and the game would go to extra time.

Extra time, exciting as it was, inevitably ended up in a penalty shootout. Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio and Luigi De Agostini scored for Italy.  Jose Serrizuela, Jorge Burruchaga and Julio Olarticoechea replied for Argentina. Roberto Donadoni saw his spot kick saved by Goycochea, whilst Maradona scored. The final penalty fell to Aldo Serena, he stepped up but it was saved in style by Argentina’s new hero. Italy, were out.

Consolation, if that what it was, was found for England and Italy in a match for third and fourth place in Bari. It was Peter Shilton’s last International and sadly a man who performed with distinction and for the most part since his debut in was left with an embarrassed finale.

From a back pass Shilton’s concentration wavered as he went to pick up the ball, Roberto Baggio took full advantage stole it off him and played a one two with Schillaci before scoring for Italy. Steve McMahon had passed back but Shilton for once was unaware of everything around him, Schillaci sneaked in supported by Baggio, England went a goal down.

Not for the first time however, Bobby Robsons men rallied with spirit and with ten minutes remaining, left full back Tony Dorigo’s cross opened up another chance for David Platt. He towered to thump a commanding header past Walter Zenga, it was 1-1. Platt had scored against Belgium Cameroon and now Italy had established himself as one of England players of the future.

Italy did not lie down and four minutes later they regained their lead. Paul Parker was adjudged to have fouled Schillaci just inside the penalty area. The penalty was awarded and the Italians decided to give Schillaci the chance of scoring another goal that would take him to a total of six and the opportunity of finishing the World Cups top scorer. Schillaci obliged, Italy finished third and England fourth.

Schillachi had finished tip scorer with six goals at Italia 90 and for the short time he had great hopes. Italy had only conceded one goal and in truth the tournament had come down to one moments lapse of concentration when other teams had got away with so many. It was a cruel blow for a team that many saw as the best in the competition.

Italy had had their ‘home coming’ and their ‘pain or ache’ and so in an apt way this falls into the category of nostalgia. Not least in the talent this team produced but also to the heights the individuals would go to in the future.

As Puccini predicted and Pavarotti sang: “Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!”

“Vanish, o night! Fade, you stars! Fade, you stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!”

Words by Richard Hall: @RichHall80