Italia 90: Two goals in 480 minutes. So why is it forever special?

Like Jim Hawkins at the end of Treasure Island, I sometimes dream of my youthful voyage far from home. I dream of trains and pizzas and penalties and the Egypt match. And I start upright in my bed with that familiar, unlovely chat ringing in my ears. Olé Olé Ofeckinlay.

Italia 90: Two goals in 480 minutes. So why is it forever special?

There will be goals, albeit not many of them, in this article. There will be ennui, and plenty of it. There will be trains, no planes, and one automobile.

There will be much chin-stroking musing about Italia 90 and whether from the Irish point of view it amounted to anything more than a tale full of sound, wonder, and furious joy that signified absolutely nothing in the long run. There will even be a visit to an adult cinema, which would have made for an infinitely more entertaining 90 minutes than did any of the Ireland matches except that — well, you’ll see.

But first, because this is my travelogue, one of the abiding personal memories.

We arrived in Milan on the opening morning of the 1990 World Cup finals, a Friday, on the overnight train from Paris. With nothing planned bar a venture to Bologna for the Colombia-UAE match the following day we decided around midday we might as well take the metro out to Lotto to have a look at the San Siro. We were ambling down towards the ground when a shifty-looking gentleman materialised from a side road on the right brandishing tickets for Argentina versus Cameroon.

Tickets for the opening game of the World Cup: We could scarcely believe it. Were they real? Surely not. Were they forgeries? Quite possibly. Was he trying to rip us off? Also quite possibly. Were we — a chilling notion — perhaps consorting with a minor functionary in Da Mob? We stared at the tickets. We patted them. We all but held them up to the light. In the end we paid not much more than face value — about £60 — and a few hours later we were up in the gods in the San Siro watching an opening ceremony that included giant coloured flowers opening and the chorus from La Scala singing Verdi, followed by Argentina-Cameroon.

I’ll retool that sentence if you don’t mind, more for my own gratification than for yours. Having left home shortly after Quest for Fame’s Derby victory on Wednesday afternoon to get the train to Dublin, there I was in the San Siro, a venue not so much a sporting arena as a set from a Ridley Scott film. Attending the opening match of the World Cup finals. Watching Diego Maradona (Maradona!) in the flesh. Good God. A quarter of a century on I am still slightly dazed. Could life ever be sane again?

What unfolded over the next four weeks is generally held to have been the worst World Cup finals ever. With 2.21 goals per game it was the lowest scoring, a nadir that led directly to a new backpass rule and the introduction of three points for a win in future tournaments. But none of that mattered at the time. Not if you were there. Not if you were young and had an InterRail pass and a spirit of adventure and enough money — just about — to sustain yourself. There were five of us and we had all those essentials, though I was the only one who’d had a fiver on West Germany at 8/1 before leaving.

And yes, I was there for the shoot-out with Romania. Behind Packie Bonner, just beyond his left-hand upright, about halfway up the stand. I know it would make for better reading if I said I nearly had a stroke. As it happened I hadn’t the slightest doubt we’d win. Holy Catholic Ireland — as the country was back then — against a bunch of recidivist former communists, spawn of the odious Nicolae Ceausescu? Come on.

What’s more, I’m very glad I was there rather than at home. Being there helped keep my heart rate relatively normal. It always does. You may not quite be able to control the players as in table football, but attendance at a match at least makes you feel you have greater control over what’s happening on the pitch than the poor saps looking in on TV do.

Similarly I’d love to be able to say I came home from Italy with a host of amusing stories with which to regale listeners to the end of my days. I did nothing of the sort. The only vaguely notable incident occurred the night we spent on a campsite outside Palermo after getting a lift there in the dark from a chap we conversed with in French — he had no English, we no Italian.

At one point, for reasons best known to himself, he produced a giant, beautifully-iced cake and commanded us to eat it. “Mange!” I was far too much a work of the patissier’s art to touch, and anyway I wasn’t sure yer man mightn’t be a serial killer who’d probably pull an axe on us if we did. For years afterwards I wondered if I’d imagined the episode. The following day we moved into a cheap hotel on Gran Via in Palermo run by a proprietress we called Mama.

We drank crates of cheap beer from supermarkets. We ate a lot of pizza. Tickets being easy to come by and the trains being clean, smooth, and punctual (Mussolini had some good ideas etc), we took in the Colombia-UAE game in the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna, complete with its little castle on one side. On one of the trains we met a chap from Dundalk who claimed Steve Staunton had been worried when Liverpool signed David Burrows but had been told by Kenny Dalglish not to fret, the only reason he’d bought him was to stop Alex Ferguson getting his hands on him. We kept a weather eye on what was happening in the other groups and noticed that Roger Milla and Toto Schillaci were making a name for themselves. And the Germans were sucking diesel.

We didn’t meet any girls, Mama’s niece Francesca — cute, bespectacled — apart. We did attend, boys being boys away from home, a porn film one afternoon on Gran Via in a gorgeous ornate building that had clearly been an opera house at some stage — and departed in terror when an elderly gentleman, the only other punter in this establishment of 500 or so seats, sat down beside us. We’d just arrived in Genoa when one of our number, wearing a Celtic jersey, was greeted with a “fucking Taig” by a passerby. English? A Rangers fan? We never found out and we didn’t much care. That was as close to danger as we came, the adventure of the car and the cake excepted.

And then there was the football. Ahem. Look, do you really want to hear about the football..?

CAGLIARI. Packie Bonner hoofs it long. Steve McMahon takes the heavy touch of a midfield destroyer and the ball spoons away from him. Kevin Sheedy pounces and with the touch of a midfield craftsman directs a clean, left-footed arrow across Peter Shilton and into the far corner of the net at the far end of the field. Ireland 1 England 1.

Palermo. Bonner hoofs it long again. Berry Van Aerle, attempting to pass it to his goalkeeper, overdoes it and the ball skews high and hard back towards Hans Van Breukelen, diving to catch it inside his six-yard box. Such is the spin that he can’t hold it. In swoops Niall Quinn, who’s followed up, to giraffe-leg it to the net at the far end of the field.

Ireland 1 Holland 1, tomorrow 25 years ago.

And that was it. Two goals, both of them the result of opposition errors, in 480 minutes. Did we even almost score another goal at any stage? Force the opposition netminder into spectacular goalline heroics? If anyone can remember a near-miss, please let me know. Really. I’d be fascinated.

All of which was OK, up to a point. Ireland-England was never going to be pretty and it wasn’t. Not losing was all that mattered and we didn’t. “Sickened ‘em again,” as a chap on the bus back from the game chortled. Exactly. The Dutch match was a decent contest until Quinn intervened, after which it became a mutual non-aggression pact a la the Germans and Austrians in 1982.

But oh, that interminable Sunday afternoon in Palermo. Egypt. Egypt, Egypt, Egypt. It was a match scripted by several Samuel Becketts: Nothing happened, over and over again, nor did it ever look like happening. The Romanian match, hallowed as one of the greatest days in the nation’s history, was in a way even worse; it lasted 30 minutes longer.

None shall sleep, as Pavarotti was bellowing from every speaker in the land? That was a laugh. None shall stay awake, more like. “Molto spirito,” was Mama’s husband’s generous verdict on Ireland. He was too polite to say anything about their footballing ability. Then again, he was accustomed to watching Baresi and Donadoni and Baggio.

Still, what of it? What if Ireland bored the backsides off everyone, their own fans included? What if we were steeped with the two goals? For years we’d been pretty, entertaining losers. For years we’d been ridden by bent referees and astigmatic linesmen. There was a litany of disallowed goals — disallowed for no valid reason — that stretched back to the mid-1970s.

All those way stations on the Via Dolorosa. Paris, long before the Hand of Thierry. Sofia. That dismal, storm-tossed night in Brussels where arguably the most gifted Irish team of modern times had a perfectly legitimate Frank Stapleton goal disallowed before succumbing to a late free kick that wasn’t. It wasn’t till well into the Charlton regime that I learned to relax and stop looking to the linesman every time Ireland scored.

Never mind the football, then, and feel the carnival. For that’s what it was. A carnival of the footballing nations of the earth and Ireland finally taking her place among them. The tricolour was seen around the world and for once it wasn’t stained in blood.

And we weren’t English, the large London Irish contingent most definitely included. That was part of it too. Not only were we Not English, we made a point of being seen to be Not English. Impeccable behaviour was the order of the month. Nobody wanted to let the side down, not even the Antos and the Deccos. Especially not the Antos and the Deccos.

Did it all amount to anything in the long run? Not in the least.

The only surprise about the recent raft of Italia 90 anniversary pieces was not that they were written — anything for an opportunity for a spot of national navel-gazing — but that the conclusion was both unanimous and so banal. “It was a marvellous few weeks. Er...” Precisely.

The 1990 World Cup finals were a phenomenon but a fleeting one, a phenomenon felt more on the home front than in Italy. Claims that Ireland’s success under Jack Charlton helped lead to the Celtic Tiger constitute pop sociology, nothing more. Entertaining nonsense, impossible to disprove but nonsense all the same. A book on the subject of the London Irish, ethnicity and identity would make for an infinitely more interesting read.

Amy Lawrence’s terrific piece in The Guardian last week about her experiences at Italia 90 did something to me I would never have imagined possible. It made me jealous I hadn’t been there supporting England.

Think about it. They were scoring goals; we were hassling opponents into conceding goals. They had Gazza nutmegging people; we had Mick McCarthy kicking people. They had, thanks to New Order, a really cool battle song that contained the words “Express yourself”; we had, no thanks to U2, a piece of lowest-common-denominator muck that not only contained the depressing injunction “Put ‘em under pressure” but has also encouraged mindless Irish folk to bray “Olé Olé Olé” at the drop of a hat, or the opening of a bottle, ever since.

Yet Italia 90 changed the life of the Irish football fan forever. It did so because it helped change the face of English football.

Sometime around the moment Gazza cried in Turin the era of hooliganism and the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough ended and the sport in England stepped forward into an unimaginable new version of itself.

Within a year Pete Davies had mythologised the tournament in All Played Out. Within two years there was the Premier League, Sky Sports and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. There followed Baddiel and Skinner, Fantasy Football, Euro 96, ‘Three Lions’, all-seater stadia, and David Beckham.

All changed, changed utterly. The terrible, lucre-laden beauty of the Premier League was born that month in Italy a quarter of a century ago. It was the alpha moment for modern English football. The omega is not within sight and, in view of the most recent TV deal, may never be.

Ireland? The inheritance was wasted and we bumble on, still reduced to magpieing in neighbouring nests. Of the 14 players who saw action against Scotland last week James McClean and Marc Wilson were products of the IFA, James McCarthy of the Scottish FA, Jon Walters of the English FA — and both Seamus Coleman and Shane Long were outliers.

A quarter of a century ago players from Manchester United and Liverpool were Ireland regulars. These days players cast off by Manchester United and Liverpool are Ireland regulars. These days Arsenal don’t bother scouting here any more. Not only was the boom was blown, there will not be another boom.

But really, how could it have been otherwise? How could the FAI, who’d rarely got anything right in the course of their pathologically venal and incompetent existence (even the appointment of Charlton had been a glorious accident), have been expected to build on Italia 90 and lead the game into a new dawn? How could they have been anything other than the FAI?

The FAI went back to their caballing and the following summer Dublin and Meath had their four-match saga. Life did indeed become sane again.

I made it home and promptly converted my West Germany winnings into non-supermarket alcohol and CDs for my new machine. Forty quid went a lot further back then. I brought back three phrases — “Grazie”, “Prego” and “Va fanculo” — two of which I use at every opportunity whenever I’m out eating Italian. I continued to follow Ireland away for another seven or eight years.

I’ve seen much more of Italy in the interim than I did back in June 1990. I’d happily move to Bologna, fat city of endless arcades and stupendous food, in the morning. But I’ve never been back to Palermo, where Francesca is now doubtless the manager of her own little team of bespectacled bambinos, and I probably never will be.

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