English football was reborn on the fourth of July. Umpteen factors contributed to the game in this country becoming both richer and poorer; by far the most significant was England’s Italia 90 campaign and particularly the glorious failure against West Germany in the semi-final on Wednesday 4 July 1990. England’s campaign started as a Carry-On film and ended as an operatic epic. The ultimate consequence was the Premier League, prawn sandwiches, Sky, Wags and the rest. All that may well have happened eventually, but it would have done so at a different time and in a different way.

The poetic nature of England’s defeat, in which they were the sophisticated equals of arguably the greatest World Cup-winners since 1970, partially obscured what went before. The truth that is sometimes not allowed to speak its name is that, for much of the tournament, England were a bit of a mess: an increasingly endearing mess, admittedly, but fortunate to reach the semi-finals. Once they did, however, they performed in a manner that ensured their campaign would almost exclusively be recalled with misty eyes, wistful smiles and a Pavarotti soundtrack.

Their Italia 90 was far from an unmitigated triumph, but ultimately it was a triumph, of the human spirit as much as anything. In the Express the morning after the game, James Lawton wrote, “I cannot imagine a more honourable way for this England team, and their embattled and frankly erratic manager Bobby Robson, to take their leave of the peaks of soccer.”

Both West Germany and England almost did not reach those peaks in the first place. They were dangerously close to not qualifying. Although both were unbeaten, winning three and drawing three of their games, they only got through as the best second-placed teams in a mini-league with Denmark, the runners-up in the only other four-team group.

Uefa had 13 places for the 24-team tournament, the same as for this summer’s 32-team event in Brazil. The difference was that there was no safety net: no play-offs, no culture of the second chance. West Germany were in with the European champions the Netherlands, with only one team guaranteed to qualify. The Germans had to beat Wales in their final home game to get through; on a fraught night in Cologne, they came from 1-0 down to win 2-1.

England had reached the tournament a month earlier after a 0-0 draw in Poland. It was a game in which they were pummelled. Peter Shilton was sensational, repelling a stream of vicious shots from absurd distances and angles, although he could do nothing when Ryszard Tarasiewicz’s 30-yard screamer hit the bar. Commentators often say “the crossbar is still shaking” when a particularly well-struck shot rebounds off it. The crossbar in Chorzów has long since stopped shivering, but English football is still reverberating from their qualification for Italia 90.

A defeat in Poland would not have eliminated England at that time. But had subsequent games — both in England’s group and the other relevant groups — panned out as they actually did, a 1-0 defeat in Poland would ultimately have put England out, with Denmark qualifying ahead on goals scored.

In the nine months between that match and the tournament, English football was constantly criticised, with focus on two particular things: a lack of sophistication on the field and a lack of humanity off it. In the early part of 1990 there was a clamour for Bobby Robson to adopt the voguish sweeper system. (There were football hipsters in those days too; they just didn’t make a scene.) Fifa’s technical report of Italia 90 says a sweeper was used by 19 of the 24 teams. Even Jack Charlton tried it in training before deciding against it. England were seen as neanderthals for playing 4-4-2.

Off the field, their fans were compared unfavourably to animals by the minister for sport Colin Moynihan. Hooliganism remained an enormous problem, while Hillsborough had accentuated the almost apocalyptic mood surrounding English football. The prime minister Margaret Thatcher called the hooligans a “disgrace to Britain” and discussed pulling England out of the tournament. England, the team nobody wanted to come to the party, were dumped on island of Sardinia when the draw was made.

Thatcher’s don’t-send-them-there-in-the-first-place idea found an inevitable cousin once the tournament started. After a desperate 1-1 draw in the opening game against Ireland, in which statisticians said the ball was only in play for 49 minutes, the Sun officially went beyond satire with a “SEND ‘EM HOME” headline. La Gazzetta Dello Sport’s headline was: “NO FOOTBALL PLEASE, WE’RE ENGLISH.” It’s a good job the papers didn’t know that Gary Lineker had soiled himself during the game, or they would have had a field day.

With the circulation war at its most desperate, England, and particularly Robson, had been the subject of unpleasant abuse from the British tabloids since losing all three games at Euro 88. “ENGLAND MUSTAFA NEW BOSS” was one Sun headline after a draw in Saudi Arabia. Then, when the tabloids got their wish, when it was leaked that Robson would take over at PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup, they called him a traitor. “ROBSON SELLS OUT FOR A POT OF GOLD” and “PSV OFF BUNGLER BOBBY” were two of the headlines the following day.

Accusing a decent and patriotic Englishman of treachery was among the more preposterous accusations ever to appear in print, and that was even without knowledge of the situation. Robson had already been told that his England contract would not be renewed when it expired in 1991. The FA had given him permission to discuss a new job, with no plans to announce it until after the tournament. A generous description might be that it was pathetic and infantile. Robson, who almost exclusively responded with extreme dignity, finally cracked and accused the press of trying to “ruin” England’s World Cup campaign. He also sued the Today newspaper and settled out of court.

The players were next in line, with some accused of having sex with a hostess.

“It was all bollocks,” said Gascoigne, who lightened the mood by introducing a song of “Let’s all shag a hostess” for the team to sing on the bus for the rest of the tournament. The players were filmed ripping up a tabloid and most stopped talking to the press. It was all used successfully to foster a siege mentality. They needed such a mentality after the first match. In his autobiography, Robson says the Ireland game “was portrayed, by the Sun in particular, as just about the end of civilisation”.

Five days later, everyone in England was heralding a new age of civilisation. England drew again, this time 0-0, but this time it was with the European champions the Netherlands, and after a brilliant performance in which they had two goals correctly disallowed and missed some fine chances. Bobby Robson had unexpectedly put Mark Wright as sweeper, the first time he had used the system in eight years as England manager. Almost all of the squad deny that it was the result of player power, although there were certainly discussions between the team and manager about its potential use. Robson says it had been in his mind from the moment the draw was made the previous December, such was the damage Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit had done to his flat back four in 1988.

Wright played superbly, and over the tournament he would reintroduce the word “elegance” to the English defender’s dictionary. There was even the occasional comparison with Bobby Moore, the ultimate tribute for an English defender. It made it even more fascinating and strange that he had not made a single appearance for England between June 1988 and April 1990.

After the match there were plenty who loved to say they had told you so, and attributed England’s performance almost entirely to their tactical switch. The reality was inevitably more nuanced. Paul Gascoigne, whose role did not really change, was outstanding and almost created a goal after symbolically Cruyff-turning Ronald Koeman. (The Guardian’s Barney Ronay later said Gascoigne was “selling the Cruyff turn back to the Dutch like the Beatles peddling rock and roll to America”.)

It’s often said that you have four years to prepare for a World Cup. It rarely works like that and, as in 1966 and 1986, England significantly changed their team once the tournament had started. Robson had tinkered on the eve of the tournament, too. “Robson didn’t build a team in this World Cup so much as eventually let it happen,” wrote Lawton in the Express after the semi-final, referring to the late introduction of Gascoigne, Platt, Wright and Parker. “For this he goes with considerable honour.”

Robson went back to 4-4-2 for the 1-0 win over Egypt which enabled England to top the group (had Egypt equalised, and they had a good chance, lots would have been drawn to decide all four positions in the group) and returned to a sweeper for the excellent second-round match against Belgium. David Platt changed both his life and the mood of England’s World Cup campaign at a stroke — or rather a swivel, with his 119th-minute volley saving England from penalties and prompting his memorable Cheshire-cat smile. Robson danced along the touchline, Butcher and Waddle had a disco. After all that negativity there was a sudden overwhelming infusion of joy.

Not least because England had a bye in the quarter-finals. That, at least, was what Howard Wilkinson said. “We’d had a report on them, a spying report, that said, ‘They’ve got four players missing’ and pretty much, ‘You’ve got a bye’,” said Gary Lineker on the BBC’s Match of the Nineties. “Bobby Robson said: ‘I shouldn’t be telling you this, I know I shouldn’t be telling you this ...’ and he was right, because they were fantastic.” In the same programme, Robson recalled Wilkinson saying, “Look it’s a bye. Tell the players: it’s a gimme!”

What the players were given was the mother of all chasings. They were eight minutes from going out after a wonderful performance from Cameroon — particularly their substitute Roger Milla, who continually dropped into the hole between defence and midfield to devastating effect — yet somehow sneaked through 3-2. This despite ending with their old-fangled formation and Mark Wright playing right-wing because of a serious head injury. Robson’s verdict was simple: “4-4-2 saved us.”

The World Cup, as Ferris Bueller might have said, moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. All of a sudden England were in the semi-final. On the day of the match, the Guardian’s David Lacey said it was “difficult to come to terms with” the idea of England in the final. There was also the usual discussion of 5-3-2 and 4-4-2 in the build-up, although it seemed not even 5-4-4 could save England, so superior had West Germany been to everyone else in the tournament except the now eliminated hosts Italy.

The Germans reversed their usual tournament approach of starting slowly and getting better: in the opening match they slaughtered an excellent Yugoslavia side 4-1, with their captain Lothar Matthäus scoring two individual goals of terrifying purpose. Matthäus, in his absolute prime, seemed like a different species to everyone else in the tournament, an omnipotent footballer-cyborg.

Not that Germany were a one-machine team. Their side was full of all-time greats: Andreas Brehme, Jürgen Kohler, Jürgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler and perhaps Guido Buchwald. They did not quite have the Ramba-Zamba stylings of the wonderful 1972 West Germany side, yet they could certainly play and they were the ultimate power team.

In the second round, they thrashed the Dutch 2-1. The game is remembered almost exclusively for Völler and Frank Rijkaard being sent off. Völler ‘s punishment is almost certainly the harshest in the history of mankind: he was scythed down, spat at, picked up by the ear, sent off and then spat at again, yet somehow resisted the urge to go all Falling Down. Klinsmann would be castigated for falling down after the quarter-final, yet in the second round, without Völler, he gave one of the great centre-forward performances, scoring the first, thumping the post and running himself to exhaustion. The second was scored by Brehme, a wing-back so good that he was effectively man-marked by Holland winger John van’t Schip.

West Germany were aiming to reach their third consecutive World Cup final, having lost in 1982 and 1986. That’s where the comparison between the sides ended. Their coach Franz Beckenbauer, who had been in charge four years earlier, would later laugh at the memory of his 1986 side: “Can you believe we got to the final with these players?”

In 1990, it would have been unbelievable if they had not got to the final with their players. For Robson, by contrast, the thought of getting to the final was almost unthinkable. In an interview shown before the match, he seemed almost in pain at the thought. “Well… I’ve been in the game now 40 years… it, it would be lovely to, to win the, the biggest prize the game has to offer, which is the world championship. It is the prize of all time. Erm...”

Around the country, hope tended to wipe the floor with logic. The reality of German superiority was only occasionally discussed, shouted down by the idea that 22 men were about to chase a ball for 90 minutes and that anything could happen. England were not scared of West Germany per se. At that stage they actually had a better head-to-head record, even if most of England’s wins had occurred in previous generations. It’s a recognition of how dominant England once were in this fixture that, before Germany’s victory in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final, the Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney wrote that, “the Germans have to ignore more omens than Julius Caesar on assassination day.”

Twenty years later West Germany not only had the better team, they had the fresher team. “We were exhausted,” said Lineker in a FourFourTwo interview. “Even on the morning of the game, my legs felt almost gone. We’d had extra time against Belgium and Cameroon. Physically we’d been running on empty. Despite all that, we did enough to win.” The England players said, and still say, they were very confident before the game despite the tiredness. Their subsequent performance suggests we should believe them.

In a sense, this was not a semi-final but a final. A limited Argentina side, who had seen off Italy with their one decent performance of the tournament, had four players suspended for the final. “We know, that if we can win tonight — but Germany do too — you’re in the final,” said Robson. “With a great chance of beating Argentina. Great chance of beating Argentina. This is the one. Germany’s the big one.”

The bigger the game, the more likely Robson was to return to his sweeper system. Butcher’s lack of pace meant he was used as the spare man, with Wright marking Klinsmann and Völler faced with the task of beating Des Walker. Peter Beardsley came in for the injured John Barnes. Beckenbauer made three changes. Völler, available after suspension, replaced Karl-Heinz Riedle, and Matthäus had two new partners in midfield: Olaf Thon and Thomas Hässler came in for Pierre Littbarski and Uwe Bein.

The status of the game was reflected by the seriousness of the faces in the tunnel beforehand. With one exception. Gascoigne larked about, smiling and kissing Beardsley. It was not so much that he was calm; more that the significance of the game had not registered. He might as well have been in a park in Dunston.

England started the game superbly. They won a corner after 15 seconds, two more inside the first 90 seconds, and it is a reasonable interpretation that their first-half dominance was a simple consequence of them running with the mood of those first few minutes. Other interpretations are that they played with the freedom of the apparently damned, and that the manner of their victories over Belgium and Cameroon had created a sense of destiny which in turn created the pre-match confidence of which they have spoken.

When the first of those corners was only partially cleared, a backpedalling Gascoigne hooked an excellent left-footed shot from 20 yards that was palmed behind by Bodo Illgner. It was going slightly wide anyway, though that does not especially detract from an adroit effort.

England troubled West Germany considerably in the early periods. Beardsley, starting for the first time since the Ireland game, twice broke beyond the defence, once in each inside channel, only to pick the wrong option once he entered the box. After five minutes, Gascoigne shimmied superbly inside Augenthaler on the edge of the area before lashing a shot that was desperately blocked by Kohler.

Gascoigne was full of it, and in the 15th minute he Cruyff-turned away from Klinsmann near the halfway line to prompt lusty cheers from the England fans. Moments later, his even more callow sidekick Platt — making only his third start for England — collected a loose ball 30 yards from goal, magnetised six defenders, and pushed a fine pass behind them all for the marauding Pearce. His firm low cross towards Lineker was put behind superbly by the sliding Kohler. This was the story of the game: there were not many clear chances but both sides were forever finding promising positions. The defences, both outstanding, were like batsmen on a pitch where they are never truly ‘in’. The match is legitimately called an epic, despite that relative lack of chances, because of the quality of the attacking and defensive play, and the intense theatrical drama contained therein.

There was another reason why the match lingers in the memory: the level of sportsmanship, extreme by the standards of the day and startling today. As the match approached the quarter point, Stuart Pearce and Brehme both made a point of helping Thomas Berthold and Paul Parker, whom they had just fouled, to their feet. The match was full of handshakes – instinctive and sincere, not the meaningless, staged PR of the contemporary pre-match handshake. The mood was briefly altered when Gascoigne, after being fouled from behind by Brehme, lifted Brehme to his feet by the shirt. Hässler gave the referee a slightly appalled look, though it should be noted that this was not really a case of Gazza’s mania: it was an outlier in a performance of largely striking serenity.

At that stage, Germany’s only vague opportunity had been a Hässler shot that spun wide off Pearce, though they were starting to have more of the ball. Nonetheless, England continued to have the better attempts at goal. After 24 minutes, Waddle’s free-kick was headed clear by Klinsmann to Gascoigne, who chested down and flashed a fine strike from just outside the area that was well held by Illgner. If such excellence was normal from Gascoigne, the intervention of Butcher three minutes later was not. He came out from defence stealthily to nip a German attack in the bud, then ran to the halfway line before backheeling the ball to Gascoigne and sauntering back to his station as if it was the most normal thing in the world; not so much Terry Butcher as Terry Beckenbutcher.

After the backheel came a nutmeg, Gascoigne on Matthäus. It was barely noticeable, because of the camera angle, the whirl of legs and its essential insignificance, near the halfway line and with Gascoigne losing the ball seconds later. But it was a reflection of his intrepid approach. “You would say, ‘You’re going to play against Rijkaard,’” recalled Waddle in Three Lions Versus The World. “And he would say, ‘Who? Who’s he?’ He didn’t care who he was playing against, and it wasn’t an act. He would say, ‘I’ll introduce them to Paul Gascoigne.’”

Gascoigne was the face of England’s tournament: the boyish face, the gurning face and of course the crying face. “In that World Cup squad,” said Robson, “he was the focal point of everything.” He should have known it would be his World Cup even before England played a game. On the opening day he put a bet on Cameroon to beat Argentina “just to be sociable, join with the lads” and won £800. Yet six weeks earlier, there was significant doubt as to whether Gascoigne would be in the squad, never mind the team. Robson had regularly shared his concerns as to Gascoigne’s tactical discipline. “We need two balls, one for him and one for the team,” he said after a game against Albania in 1989, when Gascoigne scored after coming on as substitute. “At one stage I thought he was going to play in the front row of F stand because he played in every position except the one I told him to play in.”

Robson’s concerns were considerable, although at times it seemed like pantomime exasperation. His affection for Gascoigne — who was both problem child and teacher’s pet — was obvious. Robson did not doubt Gascoigne’s talent. Nor did anybody else. In 1988, the Newcastle legend Jackie Milburn was particularly effusive “I think it’s about 35 years since I’ve seen a kid as good as this lad. There’s no holding him. He’s the best in the world. Honestly. He’s the best in the world.”

Robson, assuming Bryan Robson would be a certainty in his midfield, and with Neil Webb and Steve McMahon almost sure to make the squad, decided to give Platt and Gascoigne a game each: Platt at home to Brazil in March, Gascoigne at home to Czechoslovakia in April. It was Gascoigne’s second start for England, and he had only played 30 minutes for England in the previous 11 months.

The Czechoslovaks were a strong, canny team, full of classy midfielders who would take them to the quarter-finals in Italy. Gascoigne beat them on his own, producing one of the great England performances in a 4-2 win. He made two goals for Steve Bull, one with a marvellous raking pass over the top and another with a run and cross, before sealing the match with a lovely solo goal. “That’s fantastic,” said a po-faced, finger-wagging Robson.

“Well done son, you’ve made three goals,” said Robson after the game. “Four” replied Gascoigne, taking credit for a corner that flew around the box before being put into the net by Pearce.

“It was the match that changed Bobby Robson’s view of him,” said Barry Davies, who commentated on the game for the BBC. “I’m convinced, and I’ve said it to Bobby’s face — he didn’t deny it, nor did he say it was true — that he put him in so that he could say, ‘Well, I gave him his chance.’ And Gascoigne ran the match. He ran the match in the way that Netzer did against Alf Ramsey’s England in 1972.”

After that, Gascoigne was not only away to get his suit measured; he was in Robson’s first XI. He still managed to forget his passport when England gathered to fly to Italy. With the flight going early in the morning, Jimmy Five Bellies had to drive through the night to get it to Gascoigne in time.

Once he arrived in Italy, Gascoigne did unto the World Cup as Vinnie Jones had done unto him. He was in perpetual motion and that was just off the field. His brain couldn’t sit still, never mind his body. “Gazza was a pain in the arse early in the competition,” said Butcher. “Chris Waddle was his roommate and he was always in our room because Gazza would drive him mad.” Waddle occasionally got his own back along with Barnes. “We’d bore the arse off Gazza talking tactics, formations and foreign football.”

Gascoigne had other ways to entertain himself. Throwing soap at chickens, shouting “Look at my wad!” like Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character, after a sting during one of the race nights that were run by Shilton and Lineker; playing tennis, table-tennis, snooker, golf or anything else with anyone he could find (the story goes that, late on the night before the semi-final, he was playing tennis with some Americans before Robson pulled him off the court).

Then there were the pranks. With England’s injury list reaching absurd proportions, Gascoigne staggered towards the team emitting chilling screams, covered in bandages (which were actually toilet paper). “Don, he’s fallen off the bloody balcony!” said Robson to Don Howe, at which point Gascoigne dived head first into the swimming pool. Before the first game, Gascoigne and the team appeared live on Top of the Pops via satellite before a playing of “World In Motion”. When the presenter Mark Goodier asked an inane question about how preparations were going for Monday’s game, Gascoigne prompted lusty laughter among his teammates by replying imperiously, “Well that has absolutely nothing to do with the record!”

England’s team spirit was unusually strong. “It was like a lads’ six-week bender,” said Butcher. “But when it came to training, the football, it was like a switch, the lads just turned it on.” One of the few times Gascoigne lost his temper in the comedy style was when the lads were taken away from him. He didn’t have a girlfriend at Italia 90, and got the hump when the players were allowed to have a short break with their Wags (or, as they were called in those days, partners) — not because he wanted a girlfriend, but because he felt the wives were taking his mates away from him. When the group had a big game of charades and it was Gascoigne’s turn, he announced “two syllables”. Then he stood up, shouted “Fuck off!” and stormed out.

Gascoigne started the tournament well, particularly against the Netherlands. Against Cameroon he was England’s best attacker — he made the third goal, and almost created an equaliser for Platt at 2-1 down with a sumptuous turn and through pass — but a defensive liability, most notably when he conceded the penalty from which Cameroon equalised.

“Gascoigne had strayed in the match against Cameroon,” said Robson in a BBC interview years later. “I said to him, ‘Listen, if you do that against Germany Matthäus will come striding through our midfield and stick two goals past Peter Shilton from 25 yards, because that’s what he can do, so you can’t chase the ball.’ ‘Boss’, he said, ‘sit back and enjoy it, I know what I have to do.’ This is Gascoigne talking to me like this! So I looked at him and said, ‘I know you know what you have to do, but will you do it?’”

He did it. “The fact he was going to play Matthäus thrilled him,” said Robson. “He was going to adore that challenge and he was going to win it. And he did. He was better than Matthäus.” His defensive discipline was firmly evident after half an hour, when he blocked Völler’s cross from the right of the area with Shilton out of the game. Völler was injured soon after, continuing his hitherto miserable tournament, and Riedle replaced him in Walker’s pocket.

West Germany played with 10 men for six minutes, and in that time Waddle hit the bar from 45 yards. Such a statement would normally be accompanied by one or more exclamation marks, though in this case a foul had been given a moment earlier for an off-the-ball offence by Platt. Waddle, who had not heard the whistle, instinctively lofted a golf shot that was tipped onto the bar by Illgner, leaping backwards. In a sense, the foul was irrelevant: it did not change Waddle’s imagination and execution. In the eyes of most this was the moment that symbolised England’s New Continentality. (In reality Waddle always had the capacity for such brilliance, and it was the subtler passing movements that were perhaps worthier of praise, but that is an argument for another time.) The goal from either side of the halfway line has been increasingly devalued since David Beckham’s in 1996; at the time it was something magical. Even Pele hadn’t managed it.

At that stage England had been incontrovertibly the better team. The Times said they had outplayed West Germany to “an astonishing degree” in the first 40 minutes. Then the dormant monster stirred so suddenly and so terrifyingly that it was England who did not just need half-time but were desperate for it. There had been a slight sign when, after 38 minutes, Thon hit a 25-yard shot that was held well by Shilton despite a difficult bounce. A much more difficult save from Shilton started Germany’s surge. When Parker sent Matthäus flying — prompting another handshake as Matthäus got to his feet — the free-kick was laid square to Augenthaler, whose swirling 25-yard shot knocked Shilton off his feet as he moved to his right to push it over the bar.

For the remainder of the half England’s defenders, thus far in the box seat, were on the seat of their pants, repelling some intense pressure around the edge of the area. Respite came after four seconds of added time. It would have been thoroughly unfair had England gone behind at half-time. In the BBC studio, Jimmy Hill said it was “a pleasure to see an England team give such a display in the arts and crafts of the game. It’s been delightful. We look a classy, stylish international side.”

West Germany were a classy, stylish international side, and legitimate pride in England’s performance was accompanied by the doubt that the Germans would surely play better after half-time. So they did. Their start was such that it was as if they had simply paused the game at 45.04 rather than had an actual half-time break. Matthäus was crowded out by four defenders after a one-two with Riedle, although there was brief respite when Parker overran the ball slightly in the area after a delicious lofted return pass from Waddle. It was a reflection of Parker’s tournament: admirable gameness despite his limitations in a role he had never played in his life. He probably got forward more than Pearce. He had not been in England’s plans at the start, but counter-intuitively benefited from the switch to a sweeper (Gary Stevens, the man he replaced, was probably a better attacker and Parker a better defender). After feeling nervous before his first game, against Holland, Parker developed a calming ritual of listening to “Soul 2 Soul” on his Walkman before the match. He was never an England regular before or after, just three happy weeks in 1990.

Parker’s quarter-chance was one of the few decent attacks England had in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Yet even when they did attack they were in danger. A 53rd-minute corner led to the best chance of the match thus far. It was half-cleared to Pearce, who lost the ball 35 yards from goal to spark a rapid counter-attack. Walker’s tackle on Klinsmann diverted the ball to Thon; he ran to the edge of the box, shuffled away from the last man Parker and hit a left-footed shot that was blocked by Shilton.

Wright then made a crucial interception from Riedle; Lineker was flattened by Kohler, who helped him to his feet and patted his sweat-drenched head; Thon shot well wide from 25 yards after a nice set-up from Matthäus, who then surged imperiously past Waddle, Gascoigne and Walker down the left wing only to slip over when he entered the box. “England are under siege now,” said John Motson on the BBC. A goal was not in the post; it had been sent by recorded delivery.

It came in the 59th minute. Pearce fouled Hässler, 22 yards out to the right of centre. It was touched off to Brehme, whose low strike hit the outrushing Parker (“the kamikaze man,” as Robson called him) and looped in the most awkward parabola towards goal. Shilton backpedalled desperately but could only push it into the net as he fell backwards. Shilton, continuing the inadvertent war theme, said he was “in no-man’s land”. There has never been consensus as to whether he could have done better. Some felt Shilton — aged 40, only four years younger than the West German manager Beckenbauer — was slightly too slow on his feet, and ended up going backwards like a falling tree to help the ball into the net, rather than having the spring to push it into the net.

Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t agree. “You’re going to get people making comments, but they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said in the 2010 ITV documentary Gazza’s Tears. The affronted pride almost comes at you through the screen. Shilton’s argument is that, by reacting so quickly to the spin of the ball and moving backwards, he made himself look bad; that most keepers would been still for longer and watched it sail over their head. It’s a persuasive view, not least because Shilton’s crazy dedication was such that he came as close as is humanly possible to nurture nature and develop a sixth sense about goalkeeping. His view is supported by Brehme. “Shilton,” he said, “reacted like no other goalkeeper I had seen.”

West Germany reacted like few other teams would to going ahead in a World Cup semi-final — they kept pushing forward, and soon after the goal Matthäus ignored a challenge from Butcher before shooting wide from 25 yards. Even if England had the inclination to feel sorry for themselves, fate would not allow them to do so. It is striking how often the mood of a match changes entirely by chance. Four minutes after the goal, Gascoigne’s superb free-kick from the left wing found Pearce, six yards out, and his backheader drifted just wide of the far post. Illgner had not moved. The chance seemed to remind England that their task was emphatically surmountable and for the next 10 minutes they were superb.

Gascoigne could strip a defence naked, taking off one layer at a time as he went past player after player in the centre of the pitch, and gave a reminder of that rare ability when he swerved classily away from Augenthaler on the edge of the area before being fouled. The free-kick hit the wall.

With England starting to press, Stefan Reuter was brought on to add defensive ability in midfield. It was a consequence of the goal in two ways: one because Germany, at first intent on making it 2-0, now needed to protect the lead in view of England’s backlash, and also because Hässler, the man he replaced, had been injured in the tackle by Pearce that produced the free-kick.

Gascoigne, in an unspoken arm-wrestle with Matthäus all night, was now the dominant midfield figure again. He was acting like he owned the ball. Germany’s attempts to get it off him were such that Gascoigne was fouled seven times, more than twice as often as anyone else on the pitch. In the 68th minute Gascoigne’s through ball was tantalisingly ahead of Waddle, who had made a brilliant angled run.

Waddle’s contribution in this match, in a fairly unusual central-midfield role, is generally forgotten because of what happened in the penalty shoot-out. He was one of the best players on the pitch and was inexplicably denied a penalty in the 69th minute. He was on the left of the box, when he received the ball from Beardsley. Waddle duped Augenthaler without touching the ball, using sleight of hip, and when he then dragged the ball to his left he was taken down. Yet the offence was only obvious on replay, and the referee José Ramiz Wright may well have felt that Waddle simply fell over. Replays ended that argument. The slight strangeness of the incident — which is scarcely ever referred to in discussion of this match, even though it was a clear penalty — was compounded by the fact that Waddle and England barely appealed.

While replays were being shown, Robson made what was becoming his trademark substitution: Trevor Steven on for Butcher, and a switch to 4-4-2 once again. (Steven and Butcher both played for Rangers, who had more players in the squad — four, with Chris Woods and Stevens — than any other team. Arsenal, English champions in 1989 and 1991, had none.)

As is so often the case in football, England did not score when they were on top and did when they weren’t. For a ten-minute period after the substitution the clock seemed to eat itself, with little of note happening: England pressed but West Germany were pretty comfortable. Robson was preparing his final substitution, with Steve Bull stripped off, when Lineker scored in the 81st minute. It was certainly not against the run of play, but it was not particularly with it either.

Parker, on the halfway line, tossed a nothing angled ball towards the edge of the area, where Lineker was up against Kohler, Augenthaler and Berthold. It was one against three, but the one had the most important weapon, clarity of purpose, whereas the three defenders did not seem to know what to do or even which one of them should do it. The ball hit the thigh of Kohler and went to Lineker, who kneed it away from Augenthaler and Berthold before swinging his left foot to direct the ball across Illgner and into the far corner. Lineker has talked about swinging and hoping with his weaker left foot, with which he had scored score just three of his 34 England goals before that. Whether by accident or design, it was an extremely precise finish.

The goal, Lineker’s fourth in the tournament, made him only the eighth man to reach double figures in the World Cup overall. Lineker was seen as the boy next door of English football but he was fiercely single-minded and mentally tough. His tournament had started poorly. He was bothered by a toe problem and missed excellent chances against Holland and Belgium — both with his left foot — but in this match he looked as sharp as anyone, even if his “legs felt almost gone” on the morning of the game.

Lineker was put clear again straight after the goal, this time on the left wing after an exhilarating 60-yard cross-field pass from Gascoigne, only for Platt to be penalised for an offence in the centre with Lineker about to cross. Thereafter the game meandered towards extra-time, a timeout in nature if not name as both sides considered their changing circumstances and the prospect of another 30 minutes.

How England finished

England thus became the first side to go to extra-time in three consecutive World Cup matches. Waddle and Bull, whose tracksuit went back on after Lineker’s goal and would stay on, stood around laughing. Robson issued some instructions to his kamikaze man Parker. Gascoigne applauded the England fans, entirely oblivious to the trauma he was about to experience.

First, England’s defence had to withstand the most intense pressure of the match. Klinsmann led a two-on-two break, only to be almost contemptuously dispossessed by Walker, and then missed two excellent chances in two minutes. The first, a thumping six-yard header from Brehme’s excellent left-wing cross, was splendidly saved by the diving Shilton. The header was not right in the corner but it was still a superb piece of goalkeeping. Shilton was not required to repel the second chance. Wright came deep to challenge Klinsmann, who ran into the space as Wright followed the ball. Augenthaler drifted a lobbed pass over the defence, and Klinsmann dragged a left-foot volley wide of the far post from 12 yards. It was an awkward chance, because of the flight of and lack of pace on the ball, though he should have worked Shilton.

When Beardsley gave the ball away on the halfway line, there was barely time to blink before Walker had to get in front of Riedle at the near post to clear Brehme’s dangerous cross. England needed a breather. They got one, though not in the manner they would have hoped: in the 99th minute, Gascoigne was booked and ruled out of a possible final. He moved past Reuter and Matthäus near the halfway line but overran the ball and, with naivety and a surfeit of adrenaline, lunged through Berthold. His explanation for the tackle was simple. “I just wanted my ball back.”

It was probably a yellow card seven times out of 10 in the climate of the time. The potential consequences hit Gascoigne immediately. As Berthold rolled over and the German bench jumped to their feet in faux outrage, a desperately contrite Gascoigne put his hands in the air and apologised to Berthold. It was too late.

Robson called it “half a yellow”; Gascoigne legitimately cited Berthold’s disproportionate rollovers — which might be seen as especially callous given that he was also on a yellow and knew the consequences — and the reaction of the German bench. Both were incongruous in the context of an exceptionally sporting match. Yet it was a poor lunge. “I still don’t think I touched him,” said Gascoigne in Gazza’s Tears, 20 years after the event. “The guy was 6’4”, rolling about like a little kid. Drives us nuts when I still see it.” In the same programme, Berthold disagreed. “No, I’m not the type to make that kind of stuff. It was a foul. You don’t care whether the player gets booked.”

Robson said “my heart hit my shoes” when it happened. Gascoigne’s was on his sleeve. Often grief takes time to seep in. Not here. Gascoigne’s face was excruciatingly scrutable. In the 15 seconds after the yellow card was shown, his features betrayed so many different emotions: confusion, anger, regret, distress, fear. There will never be a greater antonym of the poker face.

“The World Cup was a special time,” he told FourFourTwo. “When I was a young kid playing at my youth club, every night I used to dream about playing football at the World Cup. I lived that dream in Italy, but when I was shown the yellow card I knew it had come to an end. When things are good and I can see they’re about to end I get scared, really scared.”

With a beetroot-faced Gascoigne struggling to suppress tears, Lineker famously signalled to the bench to “have a word with him”. Lineker, who scored 10 World Cup goals, 48 goals for England, a Clásico hat-trick and took one of the worst penalties in history against Brazil, is asked about it more than any other moment in his career.

Gascoigne was on the pitch only in body for two or three minutes, though he had composed himself and was doing diligent defensive work by the end of the first period of extra-time. He almost had reason to lose it again, this time because of England taking the lead. With the last touch of the first period remaining, Waddle hit the post.

By now Waddle and Steven were playing as inverse wingers, though both found themselves on the left in this attack. Steven’s cross was partially cleared, and he leapt above Berthold to head it back towards the area. Waddle, 16 yards out on the left side of the box, hammered a first-time shot across Illgner and onto the inside of the far post. At one stage the ball was heading just inside the post before a slight change of direction. There is a small chance it brushed Illgner’s fingertip, though it seems far more likely that the deviation came in the air or off the pitch. The pace of the shot probably cost England a goal: it bounced off the post so quickly that Platt, following up, was beaten for pace eight yards out.

Platt was involved again in England’s next, and final, chance after 111 minutes. Gascoigne, shielding the ball down the right wing, was booted up in the air by Brehme — an appalling foul that might warrant a red card these days. He was booked. With all that had gone, it would have been a great surprise had Gascoigne taken it out on Brehme’s chin. Instead Gascoigne shook his hand and patted him on the head.

The resulting free-kick, taken by Waddle, was headed expertly into the net by Platt, eight yards from goal as the Germans pushed up. He was flagged offside just before the ball hit the net, and jogged straight back to his station, with nothing resembling a complaint from any of the England players. The commentators also suggested it was a clear offside. Like the foul on Waddle it is never told in the story of this match, yet it was seriously close. In those days level was offside and the interpretation surrounding players interfering with play was different, which makes watching historical offside decisions a slightly confusing experience. Platt was couple of millimetres behind Berthold, the deepest defender, although Gascoigne on the near side of the box was a fractionally ahead of both of them. The fact he was not directly involved in the play was irrelevant in 1990. Gascoigne might have inadvertently cost England a place in the World Cup final.

Extra-time ended with another intense spell of German attacking. For much of the match they seemed to play within themselves, yet there were four spells of between five and ten minutes – either side of half-time, the start and end of extra time - in which they put England under the most extreme pressure.

It started when Thon shaped a 25-yard shot that was held well if showily by the plunging Shilton, the first of four opportunities in five minutes. Brehme, moving infield from the left, played a one-two with Riedle and thrashed a vicious rising shot not far over the bar. After an England corner, Augenthaler drove a fine cross-field pass to Klinsmann on the halfway line; he headed it beyond the last man Walker and seemed set to go through on goal, only for Walker to move thrillingly through the gears. Finally, with two minutes to go, Matthäus’s shot was blocked by Pearce and came to Buchwald 20 yards out. He used Steven as a screen and sidefooted a precise curler that bounced up onto the post with Shilton beaten.

The loose ball came to Berthold, who was tackled with feeling by Gascoigne to give West Germany a corner. At the age of 23, it was Gascoigne’s final touch in a World Cup. That was because, when the game finished five seconds before the end of extra-time, he was not fit to take a penalty, despite being on the provisional list before the match. “My head wasn’t there. I was nowhere, I was in another world.”

After a brief burst of mutual respect at the final whistle, with both sides seeming to recognise that each did not deserve to lose, they prepared themselves for the business of a penalty competition. “I wasn’t worried about penalties,” said Robson. “We’d practised penalties, we’d talked about penalties. We had good guys who were going to keep their nerve. Any volunteers? Hands up straight away. Lineker, Beardsley, Platt, Pearce, Waddle... couldn’t beat it.”

England, who’d had two penalties in eight years under Robson, would now take a minimum of seven in four days. It was their first penalty shootout and Germany’s fourth: they lost to Czechoslovakia in Euro 76 final before beating France in the 1982 World Cup semi-final and Mexico in the 1986 quarter-final. At this stage there was none of the contemporary fatalism that comes when a team meets the Germans in a penalty shootout. In many ways, the attitude towards penalty shootouts was naive. They were still relatively unusual in those days; this was only the 12th in the history of the World Cup, European Championship and Copa América.

It was an adventure, and it often seemed as if, like children going on a trip to the hospital, people did not quite realise the seriousness — that if you lost that was it, it was over. At half-time in this match, when the BBC’s Jimmy Hill criticised the format in reference to Italy’s defeat by Argentina the night before, Des Lynam said, “Penalties are so exciting”.

Hill proposed awarding the game to the team who had conceded fewer fouls. Other suggestions included disciplinary record over the whole tournament, corners, corners within the width of the penalty area, the golden goal (with eight-a-side in some cases) and — probably the most popular — allowing a player to run towards the goalkeeper from the halfway line with a certain number of seconds to put the ball in the net.

Hill’s criticism stemmed from the widespread belief that a penalty shootout was unfair. Given the contemporary perception of the skill and nerve involved in such a contest, it is striking to see how differently it was viewed in 1990. “Some people are willing to see the shoot-out as a serious extension of the game, to be dignified by detailed analysis,” wrote McIlvanney in the Observer. “In fact, it is first cousin to a roll of the dice and should be done away with without delay.” In the Guardian, Lacey described it as “a sadistically cruel way for any team to be beaten at this stage. Russian roulette should be left to the Russians … penalty shoot-outs are always a lottery.”

The word lottery was so commonplace in this context — even ITN used it — as to become a cliché. Yet when the shootout started, there was nothing lucky about the first four penalties. Lineker, Brehme, Beardsley (not always a safe penalty taker for his club) and Matthäus scored with varying degrees of excellence. Brehme, a man with two right feet, placed his into the side netting with his right foot, having drilled one with his left foot in the quarter-final shootout against Mexico four years earlier.

By now there was barely a dry nail in the house. The first scare came when Platt put England 3-2 ahead with a rising side foot that was not in the corner. Platt, having originally decided to go his right, changed his mind during his walk from the centre circle. On the way back he swore he would never change his mind again. Illgner went the right way for Platt’s penalty but, close to full stretch, could only fingertip it into the net.

At the same end, Shilton kept going the right way but was never close to getting hands on the ball. The two were not unrelated. He was waiting as late as possible before diving. It might have been a good tactic against normal penalty takers but, as the world would come to realise, such a description did not apply to West Germany’s players. “Every penalty the Germans took was a cracker that no one would have saved,” said Robson, though that was not strictly the case. And Shilton — like a few of the truly great goalkeepers, strangely, including Peter Schmeichel — did not have a great penalty record. “I can’t remember him saving one!” said Wright, who played with him for nine years at Southampton and Derby as well as with England.

The keeper ordinarily has a bit of a free pass in a shootout, but as time as gone on Shilton — generally the subject of deferential, respectful praise in the press at the time — has been tentatively criticised. It is all rather unusual. Attitudes to Shilton, more than with most players seem to be a generational thing: the older you are, the more likely you are to be in his corner. There is certainly a case that his approach in the shootout was flawed, yet he had a superb tournament and to blame him when he only had a chance of saving Thon’s penalty is a desperately unfair way to recall an astonishing goalkeeper. Some have suggested Robson should have brought on Dave Beasant just for the penalties, a tactic that was used by Martin O’Neill in the 1996 first division play-off final (in fact Leicester scored a last-minute winner). It was a non-starter: in those days sides had to nominate five substitutes for World Cup games, and Woods rather than Beasant was on the bench.

When he was growing up as a Leicester fan, Lineker’s hero was Shilton. “During the tournament Peter and I noticed how many penalties went down the middle,” he later said. “We said: ‘Why doesn’t the keeper wait and see? If the ball goes anywhere near him, he can save it.’ Shilton decided that if we got to a shootout, he’d stay on his feet. And every German penalty went in the corners!” Shilton’s plan was to increase the already asphyxiating pressure on the taker by not giving him any clue as to which way he might go. He said he had “no chance” with any penalty.

That was certainly true of Riedle’s, whipped high into the net, it was 3-3. Stuart Pearce was next. Even though he had never taken a penalty for England, he had been the nominated taker for a couple of years, but England did not get a penalty in that time. Just before the tournament, Lineker asked to take the penalties and Robson agreed but still regarded Pearce as “my best penalty taker”. As Pearce walked up he thought, “This’ll be 4-3.”

Pearce’s penalty was firm, low and pretty straight; Illgner dived to his right but was able to save with his legs. “It’s quite a biggun to have on your conscience,” said Pearce, who had to wait 2180 days for the most violent public exorcism. (In the short-term he used it as fuel, playing with absurd purpose for Forest the following season and scoring 16 goals.)

Thon confirmed Germany’s advantage with numbing inevitability, although it was the weakest of their four penalties and might have been saved by a keeper who had guessed and gone early to that side. Waddle, who 10 minutes earlier had no idea he would be taking a penalty, and whose only penalty at senior level had been in a pre-season friendly for Spurs, had to score to keep England in the tournament. You know the rest.

“It was probably about six inches from being one of the best penalties ever seen,” he said in FourFourTwo years later. “Unfortunately those six inches made it one of the worst penalties ever seen.” Weirdly, Waddle’s point was proven the next time he took a penalty, for Sheffield Wednesday in an FA Cup tie at Wolves in 1994-95. The Wednesday goalkeeper Kevin Pressman slashed an unsaveable penalty into the postage stamp in the top-left corner for which Waddle had been aiming. Soon after, Waddle, with sad inevitability, missed the decisive penalty in sudden death. The only penalty shootout he ever won was in France, an individual contest with Völler to decide who should be awarded Mullet of the Year.

The demand for electricity just after Waddle’s kick against West Germany was the highest for six years, since the final episode of The Thorn Birds. As the German team ran to put Illgner at the bottom of a bundle, Matthäus went straight to console Waddle, a nice end to a match defined by its sportsmanship. “You know,” said Trevor Steven, who was down to take the sixth penalty, “at the end, they almost felt upset for us, It was one of those games.” Waddle says it was “a magnificent gesture”, and it probably deserves to be recalled every bit as much as Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee during the 2005 Ashes. “Everything was there in that game,” said Brehme. “Either team could have won. The players had real comradeship. Even now, if I meet one of the England players, we could go and have a drink and talk about it.” He said it was “the final before the final”.

After the game Robson smiled ruefully and gently punched the air as if to say: Bugger our luck. “Under all the circumstances,” he would later say, “I think England played one of the best games they’ve played for 25 years.” It was one they did not deserve to lose. “We did not have the rub of the green,” said Parker in his autobiography, “but then, in my view, we had used it all up in the previous two fixtures.”

Gascoigne almost used up all his tears after the game, dissolving with distress and inadvertently providing one of English football’s more famous photographs. The tone of his autobiography suggests something far more complex and heartbreaking than was evident at the time. Gascoigne did not cry because England had lost, or because he was out of the final, the latter being irrelevant by this stage anyway. He cried because he instinctively realised life would never be this good again, that his nature and mental illness — even if he did not recognise it as such at the time — would not allow him to live the life everyone assumed for him after Italia 90.

“I loved being at the World Cup,” he says in that autobiography. “It was everything I wished for, how I wanted life to be ... I wanted it to go on forever, and then I’d never have to face real life.” He was the kid who could not bear to going home from the best summer holiday he ever had. There is a similar romance for England fans of a certain age when they reflect. Gazza and Italia 90 is their first kiss, their prom night, their lost girl or boy, a Proustian rush of a mood of hope, youth and innocence that can never be replicated.

“Desolate. Bereaved.” That’s how Robson described his feeling after the match. “It still rankles,” said Lineker. “I don’t care about Bobby Charlton’s scoring record, but we were within a whisker of a World Cup final. We’d have won it too. Argentina were shot.” England, by contrast, seemed to have peaked at the right time. Their Italia 90 campaign is still open to considerable debate. Dissenters point out that they won only one of seven games in normal time and only played especially well against Holland and West Germany; disciples say that nothing became them like the manner of their leaving, and that all bar the very best teams who reach a World Cup semi-finals stumble a little en route. The most accurate interpretation acknowledges both.

There are two interpretations of the eventual champions, too. One is that they only scored three goals — none from open play — in their last three games; another that they were in complete control of every game bar the semi-final against England and the dead rubber against Colombia, and are the best side to win the World Cup since 1970. It is notable that they did not even need recourse to a German team’s most powerful weapon: stung pride. Many of Germany’s most famous triumphs, and some of their failures, have involved startling comebacks. The 1990 team are one of only three World Cup winners not to go behind at any stage. (The others were Italy in 1938 and 1982.) After two defeats in two finals, this World Cup was even bigger for them than it was for England. They were worthy, brilliant champions.

With the Berlin Wall falling in 1989, there was a sense that the unified Germany would dominate football. It did not work out like that, and Euro 96 is their only subsequent triumph. Nor did England excel in the manner that was naively assumed after Italia 90. “Bobby Robson’s legacy to Graham Taylor is the nucleus of an England football team to take on the world,” said the Express. It would be wrong simply to blame Taylor for that not happening.

English clubs were readmitted to European football on July 10, two days after the World Cup final, and the 1990-91 English season started on a beautiful day with a mood of almost unprecedented optimism. It was not the first day of a new season; it was the first day of a new era. That has largely been a disaster, the consequence of avarice and other human failings, though nobody was to know as much at the time. In England, football was fashionable again. And abroad, England footballers were suddenly fashionable.

After the tournament, English players became the latest must-have accessory in Serie A, which at the time was comfortably the strongest league and probably as strong as any domestic league has ever been. Wright turned down offers from Roma and Fiorentina. Bull rejected Torino — “after six weeks of going up and down Italy I decided I would miss my English breakfasts” — while Tottenham would not sell Lineker to the same club. “If it was up to me,” said Lineker, “I would transfer to Italy right away.” The Express estimated that Gascoigne’s value had increased from £860,000 to £6m. He was principally linked with Juventus, who ensured they had no chance of signing Des Walker by announcing they had signed him, thus engaging the wicket of Brian Clough. “They will never get their hands on Walker,” he said with approximately 100% finality. Others were linked too. The Genoa president generously said, “I would say that John Barnes can count himself as 90% a Genoa player.”

In fact no English player joined Serie A that summer, though Platt, Gascoigne and Walker would later do so. What none of the 22 men in the England squad for that semi-final would do — unimaginably at the time — is play in a World Cup again. The only man to do so was Seaman, who was in England’s original squad but left with a broken finger. Twelve of the squad were 27 or under at the time, but England failed to reach the 1994 World Cup and Gascoigne was infamously omitted in 1998.

“The magnitude of it didn’t sink in,” said Platt later. “You’re only young and you think, ‘I’ll have another World Cup in four years’ time’. You don’t realise how quickly your career comes to an end relative to World Cups.” It lends extra poignancy to the words Bobby Robson said to Gascoigne on the pitch at the Stadio delle Alpi that night. “Don’t worry, you’ve been one of the best players of the tournament. You’ve been magnificent. This is your first World Cup — you’ve got your life ahead of you.”

Bobby Robson’s life came to an end of 31 July 2009 after a 17-year struggle with cancer. Five days earlier, the 1990 semi-final was replayed at St James’ Park in the Bobby Robson Trophy match. He defied doctors’ instructions and came to the game in a wheelchair, shaking the hands of each player beforehand. The teams included 10 from England’s 1990 squad and three from West Germany’s, all with hairlines and waistlines that had changed a little in the intervening 19 years. This time England won 3-2.

The word the players — Parker, Gascoigne, Wright, Butcher and others — use to describe Robson is not respect, affection or admiration: it’s love. The feeling was mutual, particularly with regard to one player. On the way home after the game, the first question Robson asked his son was: “How did Gascoigne play?”