A Sentimental Journey
The 1990 World Cup as experienced by a teenage Italian
At 16, you have a lot of questions and not that many answers. But the answers you do have are Gospel Truth. I was no different. And while there were plenty of uncertainties in my mind as I approached my 17th birthday, there was one thing I was sure of: Italy would win the 1990 World Cup.
A brief autobiographical detour. As a kid, I grew up all over the world. And, as luck would have it, I spent my formative football-watching years in non-footballing countries: from age 10 to age 16 I lived first in a suburb of New York City and then in Tokyo. The football virus, luckily, had been planted before that, when I lived in Frankfurt and experienced the unparalleled bliss of the azzurri beating the Germans to win the 1982 World Cup. In my eight-year-old head it was a collective triumph and I had played my part, operating behind enemy lines. We kept our windows open that summer and savoured the collective groans coming from our neighbours' homes as Paolo Rossi, Marco Tardelli and then 'Spillo' Altobelli scored in that magical final.
For me, that was the turning point. On Saturdays my parents played tennis next door to the Waldstadion and I'd watch the Eintracht fans file in, usually just as we were leaving. Eintracht were a mid-table side, but I was smitten with their players, particularly a hyperactive holding midfielder named Ralf Falkenmeyer and the Korean forward, Cha Bum-Kun1.
Being a pre-teen football fan in New York and Tokyo in the mid-to-late 1980s was far from easy. In the US, it meant getting up at 8am on Sunday mornings to watch Serie A2. In Tokyo it was trickier. There were 400 Italian citizens in the Japanese capital at the time, nearly half of them priests or nuns. Fortunately, one of them owned a restaurant near our house and was friendly with the Alitalia pilots on the Rome to Tokyo route. Every Sunday night, some kind soul in Rome would tape La Domenica Sportiva, Italy's version of Match of the Day, and slip it to the Alitalia pilot the next morning. By Tuesday it was in Tokyo and, Tuesday night, we'd gather at his restaurant to watch it. I'd go with a neighbour and his son, as neither of my parents had any interest in football3. My dad had a subscription to Corriere della Sera and the happiest day of the week was when he'd come home from work with the Monday edition, which contained the expanded sports section4. To say I devoured it would be an understatement. I read every word, often twice, sometimes memorising. To this day I can name half the 1987-88 Taranto side5 that narrowly avoided relegation from Serie B, and no, I'm not a Taranto fan. These days, I think about how much of my mental hard drive is devoted to such pointless facts every time I struggle to remember where I parked my car.
But back to the summer of 1990. A year in London meant I finally got to watch football in person. Usually at Stamford Bridge where I watched Kerry Dixon and Ken Monkou, mainly because it was closest to my house, but occasionally Highbury and sometimes Selhurst Park or even Craven Cottage. I still devoured everything I could, except now there was more choice (though infinitely less than today). And that's how I developed my theory, no, my conviction: we were going to win the World Cup.
It made a sense. For a start, we were pretty good. Heck, Serie A was really good. Arrigo Sacchi's Milan had won the previous two European Cups. Sampdoria had won the Cup-Winners' Cup, thanks to extra-time goals from Gianluca Vialli. And Juventus had won the Uefa Cup, defeating Fiorentina, another Serie A side, in the final. Yet it was Napoli who won the title, just ahead of Milan, with Inter in third place. This, ladies and gentlemen, was depth. Unprecedented strength in depth.
Yes, much of the success came down to foreign players. But, back then, there was a limit of three per side. Which meant that foreigners were necessarily superstars, guys who made a difference, not third-choice goalkeepers or reserve left-backs as is the case today. Milan, of course, had Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Inter had Andy Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann. Napoli boasted Alemão, Careca and a guy named Diego Armando Maradona. And, of course, the other eight guys in each starting XI were Italian and they were taking on the best players in the world, week in, week out. Which meant they had to be special6.
More important, to me, was the fact that we were playing at home. Serious countries won World Cups on home soil. I had no doubt about that, my almanacs told me so. Argentina 1978, West Germany 1974, England 1966... the ones who didn't were flaky ones, like Spain in 1982 or not-so-good ones, like Mexico in 1986. I knew, of course, that Brazil had come up short on home soil in 1950. But I rationalised that by telling myself the Brazilians made a mistake Italy would never make: they were overconfident. And that would not, could not, happen to us. We're never overconfident. We tell ourselves we're going to win, then meticulously act like underdogs, riding our own insecurity to victory. Heck, that's what we did in 1982.
With hindsight, there was another factor. Host nations are helped along. There were rumours of it in the press, when the actual draw came out I had no doubt we had 'friends upstairs'. Italy were gifted the lowest-seeded team in each pot: Czechoslovakia, Austria and the United States. Mediocre Mitteleuropean cannon fodder and — tee hee — the Americans, making their first World Cup appearance since 1950, when they beat England 1-07.
The azzurri began on 9 June 1990 against Austria in a packed Stadio Olimpico. Most of the nation, even from my perch in London (school wasn't out yet) seemed über-confident. Or, at least as über-confident we can be in Italy, which, compared to other countries, isn't much.
Azeglio Vicini, the manager, would end up being the azzurri's last 'boot-room' boss. For much of the post-war era, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) believed in growing national team coaches in-house, bringing them in young and having them rise through the ranks and Vicini was a product of that. He had a middling playing career in the 1950s and 1960s, got Brescia relegated in his only season in club management and then, in 1968, at the age of 35, disappeared into the FIGC's technical sector. It's hard to know what exactly he did for the next decade, but in 1978 he took over the Under-21 side and did very well over an eight-year stint. So much so that, in 1986, he led them to the final of the European Under-21 championships, where they were defeated on penalties by Spain.
That Under-21 side came up short but is still widely regarded as the greatest Italy ever produced. Among others, it featured Walter Zenga in goal, Riccardo Ferri at the back, Giuseppe Giannini, Nando De Napoli, Nicola Berti and Roberto Donadoni in midfield and Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli up front. After Italy's debacle at Mexico 86, there was a hunger for new blood, both on and off the pitch and Vicini took most of his Under-21 side into the senior team. Many of them were part of the Euro 88 side that reached the semi-finals after racing through the group stage undefeated. They would form the backbone of the Italia 90 team.
But the faith in Vicini stemmed not just from the fact that he was in charge of a special group of players whom he had nurtured and helped grow together for six years. It was the fact that there was something very institutional, very civil service about him, a reflection of the 22 years he had spent at the FIGC. And that wasn't a bad thing. Like many other countries, Italy had partied throughout the 1980s, the difference was that our binge was driven partly by government spending. Our mixed economy, led by the Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, lent itself to improbable public-private partnerships where, if things went badly, the state picked up the tab. In the long-run it would prove disastrous8 but in the short-term, the feel-good factor was inescapable.
In the build-up to the World Cup, there really had been only two bones of contention among the media. The first was whether Giannini was any good. Nicknamed 'Er Principe' (the Prince) in Rome for his boyish good looks and elegant range of passing, the criticism some made was that he was too flighty to run a team and had simply been coddled and spoiled by a Roman media hungry for their very own home-grown superstar9.
The other issue was who should partner Vialli up front. The Sampdoria striker himself was not in question. Despite a foot injury which limited had him to just 22 league starts the previous season, he was very much the azzurri's emotional leader and probably the first top-drawer centre-forward Italy had produced since Giorgio Chinaglia two decades earlier. Here Vicini hedged his bets. He simply called up everyone, which is how Italy ended up with six forwards in a 22-man squad.
Each brought something different to the table. Mancini was Vialli's 'twin', the long-time mainstay of Vicini's Under-21 side whose stock, alas, had been falling even as his reputation grew. Why? Because young Mancini was seen as an arrogant prima donna and some of his actions — like throwing a tantrum in the direction of the press box after a substitution — seemed to justify that image.
Then there was the target man, Aldo Serena: big, tall and somewhat clunky, he was the designated Plan B, the guy to throw in when it was kitchen sink time and you were hoofing balls in the box. Hopefully, one pundit quipped, we'll never need to see Serena at this World Cup because it will never get to that. The 23-year-old Roberto Baggio was the Golden Boy everybody was cheering on but who, most felt, wasn't ready to start10. Salvatore Schillaci was the wild card, the man who came out of the blue: a year earlier he was at Messina, in Serie B, but after a season at Juventus he was going to the World Cup. Some sniffed that it was a political choice. Even with Schillaci, Juve had only four players in the squad: one of them was Stefano Tacconi, the reserve goalkeeper, the other three (including Schillaci) were likely to start from the bench.
And then there was the odd one out: the Napoli striker Andrea Carnevale. Why was he there? "He can do a bit of everything," Vicini said. In reality, even as the World Cup approached, many suspected that the "bit of everything" Carnevale could do was actually pretty close to nothing. He played in a Napoli front three alongside Careca and Maradona: in those conditions you'd expect a striker to flourish if only because opposing defences would ignore you and try to stop the other two. And yet Carnevale scored little: even in the title winning 1989-90 season he had just eight goals. Which is why you couldn't shake the suspicion that — as with Schillaci — someone, somewhere had decreed that Napoli had to have adequate representation in what was sure to be a World Cup-winning side. Vicini, the civil servant, did not make a fuss.
As expected, the first match, against Austria, was all one-way traffic. The back four was never troubled, Donadoni created, Giannini dictated the tempo, Vialli ran himself into the ground. The problem was the final part of the equation: Carnevale, the man who was partnering Vialli up front. Vicini would later say that he started Carnevale to "give him confidence". The outcome was the opposite: he missed half a dozen clear-cut chances in the first half alone. Italy should have had four or five, instead, with 15 minutes to go, it was still scoreless11.
The Austrians seemed to be glowing with happiness, at least on my TV set. Their skipper, centre-forward Toni Polster, marooned on his own between the gritty Ferri and the immense Franco Baresi, waved his arms, urging on his defenders, as if he himself was a spectator12.
And so Vicini turned to Schillaci. The balding, runt-like Sicilian had been warming up on the sidelines and raced on to the pitch as soon as his number was called. Seeing Schillaci was somehow jarring to me. Why did we need to turn to this weird, underdog figure when Baggio was on the bench? Two minutes later, I saw the light. Vialli put in a tidy cross after some good work down the right hand side, Robert Pecl, the central defender standing in front of Schillaci mistimed his jump and the ball struck the Sicilian's head. He wheeled away and celebrated wild-eyed. Later, Schillaci would confess, "I was petrified when I came on, I was terrified I'd miss a chance and be blamed for everything. That was as much joy as it was relief."
It wasn't just him who was relieved — we all were. We knew the reality of Italy at a World Cup, especially in that era: playing well only mattered if you got results. Straightaway. And at least Vicini had done that. Surely, in the next game, against a USA who were pummelled 5-1 by Czechoslovakia in their opener, the goals would be commensurate with the chances created. Well, they were. And that wasn't a good thing.
The USA of 1990 was a far cry from today's version. Major League Soccer was still six years away, and there was no national professional league in the US. Which is why, in early 1989, the US Soccer Federation put a bunch of players on central contracts and set off on an endless series of friendlies interspersed with Concacaf qualifiers. They had little choice. For most of these guys it was the first time anyone had paid them to play football. Two of the starting XI, Jimmy Banks and Desmond Armstrong, had played professionally, but that was in the Major Indoor Soccer League, MISL, with its six-a-side format, artificial turf and tiny goals13. The only ones who had even ever stepped on the pitch for a European club side were the defender Paul Caligiuri, who played for Meppen in the German second division, and Peter Vermes, who had made nine appearances for Raba ETO in Hungary.
I remember the English commentator — I can't recall if it was ITV or BBC — wondering about how busy Tony Meola, the US goalkeeper, was going to be that night and asking himself whether a 21 year old could keep goal and take on the "massive responsibility" of captaining his nation in the World Cup. I also recall a snide remark about how the Americans hadn't quite understood the importance of the "captaincy" in "our version of football"14.
Vicini only made one change from the side that had dominated Austria: Nicola Berti, the perma-gelled Inter midfielder, replaced Carlo Ancelotti. At a time when Milan were dominating Europe and many had turned into ABMs ('Anyone But Milan'), Carletto was different. He was humble, funny and hard-working and we all knew how injuries had tormented his career. He should have been on the pitch in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup, but knee surgery put an end to that dream. And, again, his scarred, gimpy knees meant this was one tournament too far. At 31, he was the oldest player in the side and a calming influence. Instead, on came Berti, the flash, long-limbed livewire who was Ancelotti's polar opposite.
The start was positive. After 13 minutes, Vialli feinted a trap, but let the ball run for Giannini who skipped into the box and smacked it past Meola. A princely goal for the Roman blue-blood, one who proved that we had some real playmaking quality in the middle of the park. And so, the rout was on. Or so we thought when, after half an hour, Berti trundled into Caligiuri and the azzurri were awarded a penalty. There probably was enough contact anyway, but Berti made sure the referee took notice with one of his trademark dives, head first, legs in the air, a pleading, bewildered look, half-way between a Dickensian orphan begging for tuppence and a carpet salesman in an Arabian souk, stunned by your efforts at haggling. Up stepped Vialli. Great news. A chance for him to get off the mark and perhaps find some moral balm for his injured foot. Methodical as ever, he took the perfect run-up, tricked Meola into diving the wrong way and calmly side-footed his shot straight... at the post. Too clever, too perfect, when a trademark blast past the keeper would have sufficed.
And that's when things began to unravel. The Americans weren't particularly good, but they ran like maniacs. The crowd murmured. It wanted goals. Vicini understood this and so the azzurri pushed on when, really, they would have been happier sitting back and picking their spots on the counter. It was obvious even on TV. Neither fish nor fowl, Italy just petered out. And, in fact, Walter Zenga had to make his first real save of the tournament to keep out a Caligiuri free kick late in the first half.
Still, we told ourselves to look on the bright side. The win meant we were through to the knockout phase (although thanks to the silly 24-team format at the time, you had to be really, really rubbish to go out in the group stage). Giannini looked good, though, in typical fashion, his performance was overshadowed by the collective yuckiness of the second half15.
Because the Italian media are very good at creating 'crises' and 'must-win' situations, there were plenty ahead of the final group game against Czechoslovakia. The Czechs had a better goal difference (unlike us, they had mauled the USA, 5-1) which meant Italy had to win or face the indignity of playing the knockout round away from the Stadio Olimpico. Which, in itself, wouldn't have been a huge deal, except for the fact that we were the host nation and blablabla... Vicini didn't need it and neither did the players.
The main talking point at this stage was Vialli and his injured foot. He insisted everything was fine, that he'd play himself into fitness, that he'd play on one leg... the usual stuff you'd expect from a player desperate not to disappoint. There's a fine line between confidence and self-harm and, years later, Vialli would admit he was slipping towards the latter. Vicini took the decision out of his hands by giving him a "day off" and announcing that Schillaci would start. Carnevale was also dropped at this stage, though that was no surprise. Vicini had stuck with workmanlike Napoli striker as long as he could. But the fans, the media, the entire nation had seen enough: they all wanted Roberto Baggio. And Baggio they got.
I never really quite understood this. At the Coverciano academy and throughout the FIGC, notions of tactical balance are regularly drilled into budding young managers. And clearly there could be no balance with two little guys like Baggio and Schillaci up front, could there? As game time approached, I found my faith in Vicini wavering. We did have other strikers, didn't he know? How about Mancini to go with Schillaci?16Or what about the big man, Serena?17
The Czechoslovakians were a side blessed with size and individual talent, but were somewhat deliberate and slow-moving; perfect for our little fellas. And, as so often happens with Italy, the better the opponents, the better the football. Again, a bright start. Giannini fired a weird off-balance shot straight into the ground from the edge of the box. The ball bounced high and floated down into the path of Schillaci who cleverly headed past the goalkeeper. In Italy, we call those gol di rapina, literally 'robbery goals', because the striker, usually an inveterate goal-hanger, slips in front of the defender and nicks the score. And, in terms of nicking things, Schillaci almost nicked a penalty early in the second half, when Vladimir Weiss (not the kid from Manchester City; his dad, the one who would go on to manage Slovakia) slid in on him and the Sicilian tumbled over. The referee Joel Quiniou indicated that Schillaci had dived, which was perhaps a bit harsh: Weiss got nothing of the ball, it was two-footed and it was pure physics that Schillaci should fall. What got him in trouble was the way he fell, sailing through the air, feet tucked under him. And what made him world famous was his wild-eyed reaction, pupils dilated, pleading gaze of disbelief. If Berti's penalty pleads seemed somewhat smarmy, Schillaci's left you convinced that he18, at least, believed in them18a.
But this game was to be remembered for something else. The front men were firing. There was Schillaci, battling and scraping as if trying to escape a gang of hoods. There was Giannini, spreading the ball with metronomic perfection. There was Donadoni, the dribbling machine, time and again using his close control to suck in opponents and then either lay it off or accelerate into space, leaving them in his dust. But, above all19, there was Baggio19a.
Baggio created (and missed) two chances late in the first half. But that was a prelude to what was to follow. A brilliant, scything run 10 minutes from time in which he beat the opposing skipper, Ivan Hašek, spun the sweeper Miroslav Kadlec around like a demented maxi-sized top and then, with a little shimmy, duped the goalkeeper Jan Stejskal into diving the wrong way. Even in Florence, they couldn't help but stand up and applaud.
Czechoslovakia were dispatched 2-0 with a rocking display. Total and utter domination, Zenga having another night off behind a fearsome defence which nobody had come close to challenging. The only sore spot was Donadoni, whose game ended early in the second half, when Stejskal's 6'6" frame came crashing down on his knee. With no legitimate winger options on the bench, Vicini had replaced him with workmanlike Luigi De Agostini: great at running himself into the ground, usually in straight lines, and a decent crosser, but a recycled left-back who was no patch on 'Dona'.
Still, we were in the knockout round and had won every game without conceding a goal (in fact, apart from that Caligiuri free kick, we hardly conceded a shot). Our strike partnership wasn't the one anyone had in mind, but it was drawing rave reviews. In fact, Madonna wore Baggio's number 15 jersey while performing on her Blonde Ambition tour. On top of everything else, we had Madge's blessing too. From one great Italian entertainer to another. I told my dad that Frank Sinatra would have worn a Gigi Riva shirt in 1970. And, in a few years, I plan on telling my little girl the reason why Lady Gaga is clad in full Mario Balotelli kit.
School was over and so we flew to Milan to see relatives. I had harassed my parents into taking an early-morning flight so that I wouldn't miss a minute of any game. I told anyone who would listen that I was going to watch every second of the World Cup (sad, I know...). But then my dad told me it wasn't going to be possible.
"Because you won't be able to watch Ireland v Romania. We'll be travelling."
"Because a colleague got us two tickets to Italy v Uruguay. I'm assuming you want to go."
Did I ever.
It was an in-and-out job. No dawdling in the Eternal City. Linate to Fiumicino to a taxi driven by a hyperactive cabbie who looked like a scruffy but clean Gordon Gecko and spent the ride listening to self-help cassettes — "How to buy real estate with no money down!" — and telling us how he was making a killing because he hated football — "Opiate of the peoples" — and had therefore cornered the Roman taxi market — "Those lazy jackasses are watching the World Cup and I'm making money."
He dropped us off in town, we dumped our toothbrushes and headed off across the Ponte Milvio to the Stadio Olimpico. Flags, lots of them, everywhere. Cynical me had it figured. Italians are some of the worst fair-weather fans in football. Do badly and nobody wants to be tarred by association with the azzurri. Go deep into a competition and everybody whips out the flags and the face paint. For shame. But this was different. This deviated from the script. We were only in the round of 16 and the crowd we were walking in was genuinely buzzing. I told myself that the reason was simple. Like me they had figured out the ways of the world: this was our World Cup. We couldn't help but win it.
I've long had a soft spot for Uruguay. Today I tell myself that it's because of their glorious history, Héctor Scarone, José Nasazzi, all that jazz. But, in fact, I like them because they're underdogs and somewhat sad-sack ones at that. For some reason I felt like they were all characters. Nelson Gutiérrez played in Serie A, I knew him well, the slowest central defender I'd seen until that point.... until I came across his Uruguay teammate, Hugo de León. Tall, bearded, scary-looking, he was as gifted on the ball as he was intimidating. And his lack of pace was not a problem. In fact, he seemed to have this mystical ability to draw opposing strikers to him, kind of like a tractor-beam on Star Trek.
In midfield, they had José Perdomo, who was at Genoa, where he was routinely described as one of the worst Serie A signings ever. Maybe that was a bit harsh, but he certainly did little other than sit in the middle of the park, wallop opponents and mishit five-yard passes. That may explain why Vujadin Boškov, then manager of Sampdoria, famously said, "If I take my dog off his leash, he'll be more productive than Perdomo20."
Yet the guys up front were pretty good. Enzo Francescoli, tall, elegant and graceful, had spent the previous four seasons in the French league where he was idolised by Zinédine Zidane, who would later call him a "role model". Francescoli was a product of his time, probably a touch languid for today's football, but mesmerising nevertheless, a guy who simply seemed to have more time and space than anybody else on the pitch. Nicknamed 'Le Prince' in France, he made our 'prince', Giannini, look like a sock-puppet royal.
Óscar Washington Tabárez, the Uruguay boss, had four strikers, all of them talented and, like Vicini, struggled to pick two. He began the tournament with Rubén Sosa and the veteran star Antonio Alzamendi. But the former missed a penalty against Spain and the latter was wilting in the summer heat, so, against us, he went for a zoological theme: the 'Beaver', Daniel Fonseca (for his ridiculously sized incisors), and the 'Duck' Carlos Aguilera (never got that one; he just looked like small, tricky goal-hanger to me). I felt increasingly confident. Fonseca was a kid; he'd scored the dramatic late winner against South Korea, but I felt Baresi, Ferri and Bergomi could more than handle him. Aguilera was the kind of sniper who thrived when plenty of balls were played into the box. Against us, that wouldn't be happening.
Vicini stuck with the form pairing of Baggio and Schillaci up front and nobody could fault him, not after the demolition of the Czechs. Vialli was on the bench, despite his injured foot. Was it suddenly feeling better? Did he throw an almighty strop? Years later I asked him and he told me that, quite simply, some of the veteran players had had a word with Vicini: Baggio and Schillaci were fine, but even an injured Vialli is handy off the bench. It meant that, once again, Vialli's mate, Mancini, was in the stands, where he would spend the entire tournament, most of it bitter and angry21.
With Donadoni still out — and the gimpy Ancelotti on the bench — the midfield was still more brawn than quality. De Agostini deputised on one flank, Nando De Napoli on the other, with Berti doing his crazy horse routine and Giannini providing the creativity. Berti was more annoying than usual, trying to engage the Uruguayans at their own game: sneaky fouls, pointless time-wasting, recrimination, dives... The good news was that De Napoli was having a monster game, fully living up to his 'Rambo' nickname22.
Plus, apart from the odd errant backpass (two from Berti and one from De Napoli) the defence continued untroubled. Uruguay's midfield seemed obsessed with trying to keep the ball and pass it sideways until Francescoli found space which, in this game, was, well, never. And that suited Italy just fine. Plenty of chances in the first half, even a pretty volley from Schillaci, but no goals. Nobody around me was truly worried at the interval. If they didn't score in the first few minutes after the re-start, Vicini would simply chuck on Vialli who would finally regain his form. Just like Paolo Rossi at Spain 82.
Well, with seven minutes gone in the second half, Vicini did send on a striker. But it was big Serena, not Vialli. He loped on to the pitch and went to stand right next to De León. "Alright," I thought. "Battering ram time." The man he replaced was Berti: no point keeping him on the pitch, he'd been booked, he was bound to do something silly, and, besides, there was no need for another midfielder given the paucity of Uruguay's attacks.
With Serena standing in the middle like a big traffic light, Schillaci and Baggio had room to roam, which pushed the Uruguayans further back. Schillaci wasted a golden chance from a brilliant long pass from Baresi, but a few minutes later, he pulled off arguably Italy's second-best goal of the tournament (after Baggio's against Czechoslovakia). He latched on to a through-ball and, cutting from right to left, uncorked a wild shot from the outside of his boot which rocketed skywards and then seemed to drop suddenly and tuck under the crossbar. It was a billiard shot, basically, a trick shot, the kind of thing he probably would not replicate in a month of training sessions. But it was gorgeous. And important.
The goal seemed to deflate Uruguay. Their offensive impetus went from very little to almost nil, as if they were happy to keep the score down. Suited us just fine. Vicini, of course, took no chances. And when Tabárez sent on Alzamendi as a third striker, Vicini responded by unleashing our cyborg, Pietro Vierchowod. A few minutes later, Aldo Serena scored a pretty header from a free kick and that was that. Another dominant performance, Schillaci's lucky streak still alive and well, even Baggio had shown some work-rate (maybe Vialli's appearance on the bench had stimulated him somehow).
My night ended sharing a pizza with my dad in Trastevere and then a long walk back to our hotel. The sound of blaring car horns and noisy celebrations accompanied our every step. Rome seemed to glow. Our time. Our house.
I spent the next few days at my grandfather's house in Cusano Milanino, an unremarkable commuter town on the outskirts of Milan except for one thing: it's Giovanni Trapattoni's hometown. And, invariably, every single Cusanese born between 1935 and 1940 will tell you that they've known Il Trap ever since he was a skinny tow-headed baker's assistant immediately after the war. Most will also tell you that, as kids, they were just as good as he was at football, it's just that he "wanted it more" and "loved the game more". It's our version of clichéd footballspeak.
Trapattoni still lives there and it's not uncommon to bump into him. That summer, I vividly remember him showing up at the municipal park where the town had set up a viewing area: large outdoor screen, cheap-looking plastic tables and chairs, a barbecue where a spindly guy with a huge mole on his ear grilled sausages and ribs, and Ezekiel, a Nigerian who did odd jobs at the parish church and bore an uncanny resemblance to Simon Adebisi, the pyschopathic rapist-cum-murderer from the HBO series Oz, dispensed cold beer and mineral water23.
Trapattoni would take ages to make his way through the park, stopping to greet every single person there. "Hey, how you doing? Good to see you. How's your wife/mum/dad/son/daughter/dog/cat/plant/stamp collection?" Everybody acted as if they knew him (which, I suppose, they did, if only from television), the uncanny bit was that he acted as if he knew everybody. And when he shook your hand and addressed you he made you feel as if you were the only person who mattered to him. It was sweet and slightly unnerving. The only other time I've experienced such a feeling was years later when I attended a fund-raiser which featured Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker. He too exuded that air of genuine warmth and engagement, the only difference is that Clinton had mastered the art of coasting through a room in minutes, whereas it took Trapattoni a good hour to greet everybody in the park.
Anyway, I can't be sure Trapattoni was there the night of the Italy v Republic of Ireland quarter-final or whether I saw him on another night. In my mind, I like to think that he was there and there was some clever kind of foreshadowing going on.
Ireland were unlikely quarter-finalists. This was their first ever World Cup, they had survived a tough group which included England and Holland and then knocked out Romania on penalties. Years later I'd find out that the FAI never expected to get this far and, once they qualified for the quarter-finals, had major problems finding a hotel room in Rome. So they split up. The blazer brigade and FAI honchos checked into a fancy hotel, whereas Jack Charlton and the players ended up in some crumby pensione near the train station. Ray Houghton would tell me years later that the rooms were so small Niall Quinn could not lie down in his bed without his feet banging against the door. It so incensed Big Jack that he marched over to the FAI hotel and demanded they swap.
It wasn't a bad Republic of Ireland team per se, just that, as often happens with nations of that size, you have very good players (Paul McGrath, Houghton, John Aldridge) playing alongside guys who are several notches below. Awkward, I think, is the word that best described them. They certainly frustrated us from the start.
Donadoni was back and that was the only change to the side that had beaten Uruguay. If Vicini's plan was to outplay Charlton it soon became apparent that it was far from easy. This time the problem was at the back. Niall Quinn destroyed one of my heroes that night, beating Ferri to seemingly every ball in the air: Zenga actually had to make his first saves since the USA game. Even Baresi was getting increasingly frustrated by Ireland's simple but effective high-pressure game. Where we were supposed to be quick on the counter, it seemingly took him ages to get the ball out of our final third when we won possession. Beppe Bergomi, tangling with Aldridge, also seemed to struggle. I was non-plussed: this was Bergomi, 'Lo Zio'24, the guy who was unfazed starting a World Cup final as an eighteen year old in 198224a.
Meanwhile, McGrath was immense: he put Giannini in his pocket and bossed the midfield. "They can't play like this the whole game," I told myself. "Something has got to give."
And it did. Late in the first half, Donadoni's driving shot was parried by Packy Bonner right into the path of Schillaci, who side-footed it just inside the far post. It was lucky, it was ugly, it was uncoordinated, but it counted. Collective relief all round. To be fair, we played better in the second half, two goals were disallowed for dubious offsides and Schillaci hit the crossbar with a piledriver free-kick. But we were all left with the awful suspicion that we were a side that played down to our opponents' level.
The good news was that earlier that day Argentina had squeaked past Yugoslavia on penalties, which meant we'd be facing a good team in the semi-finals and would have no choice but to raise our game. The bad news? Diego.
I had plotted out endless scenarios before the tournament and, in each and every one Italy played Brazil in the semi-final. It just made too much sense and it fit neatly with subliminal scripting views at the time. Brazil had not won a World Cup since 1970; they were due. João Havelange was the Fifa boss and he was getting old. Plus, I bought the Sebastião Lazaroni hype. The Brazilian federation had taken a radical step in ditching the legendary Tele Santana for what they called a "European-style" manager, Lazaroni, a guy who played a 3-5-2 sweeper system. No more would they be unbalanced; they would have two markers at the back, a libero snuffing out danger behind and the combination of Dunga and Alemão shielding the back line. They had the Cafu and Roberto Carlos of the day — Jorginho and Branco — on the flanks and the immense Careca up front, so goals would not be a problem either. It all made sense.
But, of course, you could rely on Diego Maradona to mess everything up. In the path I had plotted for them, they would play some loser third-place team in the round of 16 and then beat up Yugoslavia or Colombia in the quarter-final before crossing swords with the azzurri. How wrong I was. The alarm should have gone off when Argentina lost their opener to Cameroon: at that stage the two superpowers, Lazaroni's Brazil and reigning world champion Argentina, were potentially on a collision course. I didn't see it coming, but with Maradona railing against Fifa and Havelange on a daily basis my conspiratorial mind should probably have warned me there was a distinct possibility Argentina could meet Brazil in the round of 16. And when they were held by Romania, sealing their third-place finish, it was confirmed: it would be Brazil v Argentina in the first knockout round.
That's when I got really nervous. Maradona was in our half of the draw. Rather than reflecting on the fact that Argentina obviously weren't that good — and, in fact, the supporting cast was more rag-tag and motley than in 1986 — I was genuinely terrified of what El Pibe de Oro could do. But, still, I told myself it would be OK. He'd get done by Brazil, the designated assassins, right? The Establishment would make him pay for his daily rants, correct? I even told myself that it really didn't matter that Brazil had only managed to score four goals in their rather flimsy group. Faced with Maradona, they would bring the power of history to bear upon him and put him in his place.
Yeah, right. Their clash was a testy, nervy war of attrition. This was Carlos Bilardo's Argentina, after all, and they had a knack for making any game unpleasant, both for the viewer and for the opponent. Brazil dominated, but the Argentinian back line scraped, clawed and growled its way to safety, time and again. Maradona, who was himself getting a fair dose of punishment, mostly from Ricardo Gomes and Dunga, looked frustrated and dishevelled, even with the shorter hair he sported in those days. But 10 minutes from time, he conjured up one of the greatest moves I have ever seen on a football pitch. Maradona received the ball in his own half, squirted his little round body forward, eluded two opponents — one by strength, one by guile — and then, just as three Brazilian defenders converged upon him, threaded a pinpoint reverse pass into the path of an unmarked Claudio Caniggia who calmly beat the goalkeeper. Oh, and he did it with his right foot. Supposedly his 'bad' one.
I began to come to terms with the fact that we would need, somehow, to deal with Maradona to fulfil our destiny. On the day of the Ireland game, I had braved the muggy, late-afternoon humidity of the municipal park to watch their quarter-final against Yugoslavia. It was so sticky and unpleasant that there were maybe a dozen people there. The anarchist with the mole was reading a book about Mikhail Bakunin25 two Neapolitan emigrés draped in light-blue Napoli shirts made a racket while the odd pensioner looked on. I sat with my cousins and Ezekiel who, sensing my worry, told me that God was not going to let Argentina defeat Italy, just as he wasn't allowing his country, Nigeria, to quality for the World Cup. "You need to be pure to be rewarded and Maradona is not pure," he said earnestly.
I declined to remind him that Maradona had single-handedly won the World Cup four years earlier. And I wonder what he thought four years later when Nigeria not only qualified for the World Cup, but came within a few minutes of beating Italy to a spot in the quarter-finals. Argentina v Yugoslavia was a horrible game. The defender Refik Šabanadžović got his second yellow after just half an hour, but, even against 10 men, Argentina were outplayed and responded by kicking everything that moved (they would get five yellow cards). But the Yugoslavs — who at one point had Robert Prosinečki, Dragan Stojković and Dejan Savićević all on the pitch at the same time — where at their languid, self-indulgent worst, fluffing chances and letting themselves be pushed around. It went to penalties and it was still just as bad. Even Maradona missed from the spot, but Gustavo Dezotti notched the decisive fifth and final one, to send the Yugoslav bottlers home.
My parents and I drove up to our summer house in the Alps, just across the border from Switzerland. I told myself it was the perfect venue to watch the Argentina game. At the time, Val Vigezzo was connected to the rest of Italy via a mountain-hugging, uneven, pot-holed road filled with hairpin turns and needless chicanes, bordering a steep ravine. On one side of our valley was an uninhabited national park, on the other side, an equally barren part of Switzerland. The only other road out was via the Swiss border. This was to be my little island, my isolated haven from where I'd watch us win the World Cup.
Even then I knew I was telling myself lies.
My rational brain kept doing its thing. Argentina were bad. Very bad. Their guys were constantly getting suspended, meaning Bilardo had to use a full cast of imperfect stiffs at the back and in central midfield. Jorge Burruchaga was a shadow of the guy who looked so sharp at Mexico 86. Caniggia was a flake, a one-trick pony with an aura of loserdom, so different from Maradona's foil four years earlier, the majestic and regal Jorge Valdano. And even Diego had missed from the spot...
Maradona, of course, made the build-up all about him. Or maybe it was the media who did. If so, it made sense, because he really was the focal point of everything, the alpha and omega of the moment. The match would be played in Naples and that scared the daylights out of everyone. Naples was — and is — Maradona's adopted hometown. Would the crowd back their idol or their country? Or was it even their country?
"How covenient for Italy to remember Naples and Neapolitans once every so often, when they need their support," Maradona mused. "Naples is unwanted by Italy, Italy does nothing for Naples, they simply mock Neapolitans and treat them as some kind of burden. And now they want Naples to support Italy? Against me? I think the fans know who loves them, who embraces them, who has been with them every step of the way."
The problem was this: Diego was right. He had embraced Naples in a way few footballers ever have and the city had loved him back, unconditionally. To the rest of Italy, still mired in its north-south divide, Naples was the red-headed stepchild, the one you lock away when you have company.
It probably would have been OK if the media hadn't seized upon this issue and beaten it to death. Club v Country or, rather, Local Hero v Country. Which side are you on, boy, which side are you on? One TV station even played that stupid Pete Seeger song endlessly, while reminding Neapolitans of their "responsibility".
That night, at the San Paolo there was a big banner which read: "Italia nei cori, Diego nei cuori." Which basically meant "We'll sing for Italy, but Diego will be in our hearts." Enough people had come from elsewhere in the country to support the azzurri, but they only added to the problem when they booed the Argentinian anthem. The camera panned in to Diego's face as he mouthed "Hijos de puta!" time and again. The Neapolitans in the crowd seemed stunned, confused. They had reluctantly agreed to their duty as Italians but now their idol was being insulted and disrespected. In his own house, no less. There was murmur across the ground, even as the vocal minority of azzurri fans tried to ratchet up the noise level.
"It was surreal, like being underwater or in one of those dreams where you can't speak and there is no sound," Vialli would tell me later. "You could feel the tension and uncertainty in the crowd."
The fact that Vialli was even on the pitch was one of the surprises unveiled by Vicini, who decided to break up the Baggio-Schillaci partnership. It was the classic decision that managers make when they trust their gut. Vialli was the heroic leader who gave everything; this was his time, even if he wasn't fit. After the game, Vicini would say, "I played Vialli because he had started the first two matches and we had won. Besides, I had always said I'd rotate the squad."
Fine. The TV cameras picked up Vicini staring at the dropped Baggio during the pre-game warm-up. The Italy manager would walk away a fool or a king for making this decision.
The other big decision was the one he did not make. How to deal with Maradona. This was the age of man-marking, but, for most of the tournament, Italy had played a flexible zone, with Ferri and Bergomi freely swapping the opposing strikers based on their position. The media urged him to make a choice and stick with it, to put one or the other on Diego. Or, better yet, to use Italy's best man-marker, Pietro Vierchowod. The son of a Ukrainian prisoner of war, the man they called 'the Tzar' had seen very little playing time in the tournament and, to be fair, he wasn't really needed. But this was different. Hindsight is always 20-20 but if there was one game in which you'd sacrifice the understanding between Bergomi and Ferri for a specialist man-marker who could envelope Maradona like a glove, this was it. "Even a blind man could see it," Mancini would say later.
Argentina surprised us in the early going by being more pro-active than in previous matches — or maybe it was Italy being more negative? Zenga did well to keep out Burruchaga's rasping shot. Still, that was fine, I told myself. What's the point in having the best goalkeeper in the world if you're not going to give him some practice from time to time?
It was now half past nine. My parents retired upstairs. (Like I said, they're not football fans.) I was all alone, by choice, which, given the circumstances, was exactly what I wanted. And, after 17 minutes, when Italy took the lead, I ran outside and shouted at the top of my lungs. Similar shouts echoed back to me across the deserted valley.
It was a pretty move with a fortunate ending. Giannini ran into the box, lifted the ball over a defender and headed it on to Vialli, whose shot was parried by Sergio Goycoechea before falling to — who else? — Schillaci. The ball struck the upper part of the little Sicilian's shinpad and sailed past the goalkeeper. It was lucky, but in the way the goals of Gary Lineker or Pippo Inzaghi are lucky: you have to be there to score.
I relaxed a tiny bit. The gods were on our side. Sometimes it's better to be fortunate than to be good. Bilardo, evidently, sensed this too. At half-time he tweaked what had basically been a 6-2-2 formation by removing a defender, Gabriel Calderón, and sending on a midfielder, Pedro Troglio. A smallish tidy passer with big hair, Troglio had looked entirely unremarkable in Serie A, where he played for Lazio. But, suddenly, he seemed to be getting increasing amounts of space and time. This was because the 'switch on/switch off' approach to marking Maradona was failing. Ferri and Bergomi couldn't handle him one-on-one and since what we feared most was that he'd embark on one of his dribbling runs, Italy reacted by always having a second man there, usually De Napoli, in addition to Baresi sweeping behind. It was, simply, overkill and Maradona turned it to his advantage, scampering into empty spaces while dragging a whole procession of defenders with him and creating space for Troglio's passing.
Yet it was Maradona, obviously, who created Argentina's equaliser, eluding his posse of markers to open up play down the left for an unmarked Julio Olarticoechea. What happened next was one of the most bizarre and unlikely sequences of play I have ever seen.
Olarticoechea crossed a looping ball to the edge of the six-yard box (with his right foot, no less...). Because Baresi had wandered off to worry about where Maradona would run to next, Ferri was the last defender, standing right behind Caniggia who had his back to goal. No problem. Caniggia was a poor header of the ball and Ferri had jockeyed him into a position where he could not turn to head it goalwards anyway. Besides, Zenga was vigilant.
Goals are rarely the result of a mistake, but the result of a confluence of independent events that create a perfect storm for the unthinkable. Caniggia actually jumped for it, lifting his body backwards into Ferri, thereby preventing his marker from leaping. And, to make matters worse, Zenga, assuming there was no way Caniggia would reach the ball, stormed off his line. And, in some ways, Zenga was right. Caniggia did not make contact with the ball. His hair did, just enough to lift it over the stranded goalkeeper and into the back of the net26.
I was stunned. I asked my rational brain for help, for some comfort that everything was going to be OK. No luck. No answer. So I watched open-mouthed at what happened next. Vicini called the cavalry. Off went Giannini and Vialli, on came Baggio and Serena. Creativity and brute force. Textbook stuff. But can conventional wisdom stop witchcraft?
It went to extra-time. Baggio hit a perfect free-kick which Goycoechea, who would soon become as mystifyingly fiendish as Maradona, kept out with the save of the tournament. Argentina, by this point, were playing for penalties and who could blame them? It was tooth and nail stuff, Ricardo Giusti was sent off for the umpteenth foul on Baggio but, even with the man advantage for the final 17 minutes, it did not make a difference. I cursed them via my TV. The azzurri supporters had fallen silent, stunned as I was. The Neapolitans murmured, torn by their own divided loyalties.
It went to penalties. At times like these you turn to strange rituals. I shut off the TV and turned on the radio. The commentator informed me that Ferri who was suffering cramps and Schillaci, who had strained his groin, would not be taking penalties. Great. Two of our designated penalty takers out.
Ordinarily, my rational brain would have come to the rescue. It would have told me that Zenga was a better keeper than Goycoechea, a relative nobody who was only starting because of Nery Pumpido's injury. Or that we regularly produced when our backs were to the wall. Or that, this was our World Cup. Our house. And that whatever point Maradona had to make had already been made, there was no need to compound the matter by sending him any further on his World Cup journey.
Not this time. The problem with listening to the radio is that you don't know where to look or what to do. And during a penalty shoot out, that can be fatal. I sat on the floor and rocked gently back and forth, like a lunatic without a strait-jacket.
Up stepped Franco Baresi. This guy didn't miss. Paolo Di Canio, who played with him at Milan and established an unlikely friendship — the loudmouth prima donna and the great stone face — once told me that watching Baresi move on the pitch was like seeing some higher mind shifting him by remote-control, a supercomputer making billions of calculations per minute to come as close to perfection as you possibly could. Four years later, of course, Baresi would miss a crucial penalty in the World Cup final. But that had yet to happen and I knew he would convert. Effortlessly and with little celebration. The marker had been laid down.
José Serrizuela was up next. I knew what would happen. He would blast it, he always did. No point in Zenga waiting to see where it was going, it was just a question of chucking your body forward and hoping that some part of flesh or nylon met leather. Serrizuela scored, but the commentator said Zenga was unlucky. So I immediately flipped on the TV. Indeed, he had been. Serrizuela simply smacked it straight down the middle and Zenga held his ground and got a hand to it. But the shot was too powerful.
I stayed with the TV and shut off the radio. Maybe this would do the trick. Baggio took forever to get ready, tucking in his shirt, then untucking it, then tucking it back in. Never the most expressive of players, his visage was a total blank slate. He side-footed it to Goycoechea's right and the keeper guessed correctly but failed to keep it out. At that moment, I was grateful Baggio was clever enough not to rely on accuracy alone, but had hit hard enough to bend the keeper's hands.
Zenga was chewing his gum furiously and bouncing around in the goal ahead of Burruchaga's penalty. This one came very quickly, it was as if both men wanted to get it done with in a flash. Zenga gambled to his left, Burruchaga slipped it right. Easy. The über-confident schtick from our goalkeeper evidently wasn't working.
De Agostini was Italy's Stuart Pearce, albeit a less intimidating version. He would smack it left-footed as hard as he could and he did, with Goycoecha, as ever, flying to his right. It was a perfectly hit penalty and as the ball bounced back out after hitting the back of the net, he smacked it home again. Good, I thought. It's a sign of life, a sign of emotion, of anger, a way to break the tension. Sometimes, it's the role players who come up big in moments like this27.
I tried something different. I muted the television and let the silence envelop me. Our house was set well back from the road and, apart from my parents (presumably) asleep upstairs, the closest human being was half a mile away. Good. That's how I liked it. Solitude and silence. Zenga was about to make a save. And he was going to save Maradona's penalty.
Except it wasn't Maradona who stepped up, but Olarticoechea. Bilardo had changed the order of the penalty-takers. My mind raced: why? Was it because of the one Diego missed against Yugoslavia? Was he bottling it? Had something happened? I prayed that it would blow up in Bilardo's face... and Maradona's too.
Olarticoechea looked terrified to me, but it didn't affect his penalty. It was neatly tucked into the far corner. With the sound muted I noticed that Zenga waited until the very last second to pick a side and then chose the wrong one. Again. He was letting me down.
TV off, radio back on for Donadoni. I tried to visualise; the curly hair, the choir-boy face, Goycoechea pogoing in his goal. Saved. Goycoechea flew to his left and snuffed out Donadoni's angled mid-height finish. Now I was shaking.
I thought a different approach would help. I would turn the volume down just as the next penalty was hit and turn it back up a moment later. Yeah, that would work. I had tried the other audio-visual combinations: why not this one? My rational mind, of course, was long gone. It was just me and my insanity. And I truly believed I could affect events hundreds of miles away.
"Maradona's turn," said the grim man on the radio. I didn't need him to tell me, I could hear the hail of whistles and cat-calls in his direction. The azzurri fans were making themselves heard. How many in that stadium are actually supporting us, I thought? A third? A half? Where had they been all game?
As he took his run-up, I duly turned the volume down, felt the thud of silence for a beat and then jacked it back up. Crowd noises! Celebration! That's what I heard, for a second. He must have missed! The voice from the radio scythed through my heart. "Now it's going to be tough." Maradona had actually scored. What I was hearing was the Argentina fans and, more likely, the Neapolitans. Their man had scored. This was a release for them. When you've spent years cheering Maradona's every move at the San Paolo, it's a difficult habit to break. Even when he's wearing an Argentina shirt and playing against Italy.
I waited long enough for the commentator to tell me Serena was next, which I already knew. I solemnly turned off the radio and wandered outside, into the front garden, which overlooked the valley. I could see lights and houses in the darkness. I didn't need to watch the rest of the penalty shoot-out. I'd know by the reaction. People would seen be exiting their homes. If I heard horns blaring, we would, somehow, have won. If I just saw the odd car heading off into the night, the worst would have happened. Instead, I heard a low, groan in the distance. And it was enough. I knew. Serena had blasted it, which was the right thing to do, but Goycoecha had got his body in the way. Argentina were in the World Cup final.
I lay down on the grass. Maybe I'd find solace looking into the stars. But it was cloudy. So I shut my eyes and waited. At some point, I fell asleep. Not sure when. But I distinctly remember waking up when it was still dark and choosing not to move. Maybe I could stop time, perhaps even send it backwards and get Zenga to dive the right way. I spent several hours, mind blank, simply willing a hole in the space-time continuum. When light came and dawn broke, I knew I was defeated. And, with it, my certainties.
I did not watch a single minute of the rest of the World Cup until several months later. I did not talk to anyone, beyond the most basic conversations with my parents, for several days and did not buy a newspaper for a week. Later that summer, I went Euro-railing through Eastern Europe with my best friends. Only then did the pain subside.
To this day, I don't know what hurt more, losing the shoot-out or realising that my teenage certainties had crumbled. But with hindsight, I knew a chapter of my life had ended. I was growing up. And, until the day I became a father, I would never again find myself so emotionally invested in anything.