90: Ciao! Gazza's tears, Schillaci's skills and Milla with the corner flag

Italia 90 was hardly a festival of flowing football,“ but, writes Chris Hunt, it changed the way we watch the game...

In many ways the 1990 World Cup failed to live up to the hype. The football was often dour and negative, while the final itself was an unattractive display of foul play that was overshadowed by two red cards and settled by the most dubious of penalties.

But while not a tournament for the purists, somehow Italia 90 contained enough moments of high drama to capture the imagination, enshrining operatic aria Nessun Dorma in the football psyche. Legends were created out of players such as Toto Schillaci, Paul Gascoigne and Roger Milla, while the 52 matches reached a combined TV audience of 26 billion –“ twice the viewing figures achieved by Mexico 86.

Italy had been awarded the right to host the World Cup while still champions in May 1984, beating off the challenge of the Soviet Union, and on the eve of the tournament the Azzurri were favourites to lift the cup. Able to boast the most competitive league on the planet, Italian club sides had managed a complete sweep of European trophies a month earlier, and nothing less than victory was expected of the hosts.

The thrilling Dutch side of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten arrived in Italy as European champions, but unsettled by internal strife they would prove the biggest disappointments. While the pragmatic Brazilians of 1990 were hardly the beautiful team of years gone by, the West Germans managed to conform to their own stereotype of quiet efficiency and seemed a good bet.

Roger Milla was an undisputed World Cup hero for Cameroon

England, meanwhile, had qualified without conceding a single goal, but still managed to finish second in their group, having to qualify as one of the best runners-up. France weren't so lucky: semi-finalists in 1982 and 1986, they missed out completely under young coach Michel Platini.

No expense was spared in the build-up, as the Italians embarked on a major overhaul of their football infrastructure, but the planning for Italia 90 was dogged by corruption and controversy. Ten existing stadia were completely renovated, while two more were constructed from scratch in Bari and Turin, both of which were far too big for the clubs that would occupy them after the competition.

In Rome a new metro line was built just for the World Cup, connecting the city centre to the Olympic Stadium, but the line closed after the tournament and has never re-opened. The Italian state spent public money freely on their program of regeneration, but the scale of the corruption would later be exposed in one of the largest judicial investigations in Italian history.

The format of the competition remained the same, with 24 teams competing in six groups of four, the top two teams and the four best third-placed sides progressing to a knockout second round. In an attempt to improve the quality of the football, FIFA tinkered with the laws of the game and, with very little planning, outlawed the 'Professional Foul'™.

Strict instructions were given to referees to issue draconian sanctions for foul play, and the tournament'™s opening game –“ a shock defeat of world champions Argentina by outsiders Cameroon –“ saw the first two of a stream of red cards. It set the tone for Italia 90. By the end of the tournament, 16 players had been sent off –“ double the highest number previously seen in a World Cup.

World Cup 1990: Features, interviews, top 10s, videos


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