History of the World Cup: 1990 – Beware of the Germans

Argentina's Diego Maradona and West Germany's Guido Buchwald tangle with one another during the 1990 World Cup final in Rome. (AP)

West Germany joined Brazil and Italy as three-time winners after beating Argentina in Rome in the worst World Cup final in history.

THE MAIN STORY

In 1990, the World Cup returned to Italy, land of Armani and Versace, sun-splashed piazzas, and la dolce vita — the sweet life.

In a country where style and culture is valued above all else, it seemed inevitable that the 1990 World Cup would be a remembered for producing graceful and sophisticated soccer. What we got instead was a macabre spectacle that filmmaker Federico Fellini himself could never have dreamed up.

Italia ’90 was, barring a few moments of colour and inspiration, a dull and lifeless competition where crude physical play and cowardly defensive tactics ruled, topped off by what is universally considered the worst final in the storied history of the World Cup. Goals were at a premium in Italy, which was to be the lowest-scoring World Cup ever. No less than four matches were decided by a penalty shootout, a staggering testament to how the cancerous mentality of playing “not to lose” had gripped the game.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

TOURNAMENT FORMAT

The 24-team format used in 1986 was still in place: the top two teams in each of the six groups advance, as well as the top-four third-place sides overall.

THE FINAL

The final in Rome pitted Argentina (viewed as the villains for their foul play, constant diving and ultra-cautious attitude) against West Germany (the beacon of attacking soccer in the competition) in a repeat of the 1986 final.

Claudio Caniggia was ruled out for the game (he picked up his second yellow card of the tournament in the semifinal), and Maradona was practically a cripple (his knee problems still bothering him). It was hardly a surprise, then, that Argentina maintained its modus operandi of brutal physical play and disgraceful defensive tactics against the Germans.

The champions were made to pay for their contemptuous behaviour in the 65th minute when Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal red-carded Pedro Monzon for a vicious foul on Jurgen Klinsmann. In becoming the first player sent off in a World Cup final, Monzon made the task of his teammates, looking to drag the game into a penalty shootout, much more difficult.

The match turned in the Germans’ favour when Roberto Sensini fouled Rudi Voller inside the penalty area. The referee immediately pointed to the spot, although it appeared Voller somewhat theatrically fell to the ground. Andreas Brehme converted the 85th-minute penalty to kill off the game.

QUICK FACTS

Number of participating teams: 24
Top scorer: Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci (6 goals)
Number of games: 52
Total goals scored: 115
Average goals per game: 2.21
Highest scoring game: Czechoslovakia’s 5-1 win over the United States on June 9, and West Germany’s 5-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates on June 15
Total attendance: 2,517,348
Average attendance: 48,411

MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT

Salvatore Schillaci. A virtual unknown before the tournament, Schillaci became a national hero in Italy after guiding the Azzurri to the semifinals. Schillaci, nicknamed Toto, finished as the top scorer with six goals and won the Golden Ball award as the MVP. Not bad for a player who only appeared in one game for Italy before the tournament. Honourable mention to Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, West Germany’s Lothar Matthaus and Cameroon’s Roger Milla.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT

England’s 3-2 victory over Cameroon in the quarterfinals. Leading 2-1 with 10 minutes to go, Cameroon was on the brink of becoming the first African nation to make it to the semifinals. A pair of Gary Lineker goals, including the game-winner in extra time, dashed that dream and allowed England to escape.

MILLA TIME

No player captured the hearts of spectators in Italy more than Cameroon’s Roger Milla, the aging forward who became a fan favourite for his brilliant goals and colourful dance celebrations. It was in Italy that Milla achieved global fame when he scored four goals, all as a substitute. Milla scored twice in Cameroon’s 2-1 win over Romania in the first round to become, at 38 years and 20 days, the oldest player to ever score at the World Cup — a record he broke four years later.

Milla not only helped Cameroon to become the first African nation to reach the quarterfinals, but his country’s success bore significant fruit for Africa. FIFA took notice of Cameroon’s strong showing in Italy and allowed three African nations, as opposed to two, to compete at the 1994 World Cup.

WHERE WERE THE GOALS?

The 1990 competition ranks as the lowest scoring World Cup ever: the tournament averaged a meagre 2.21 goals per game. The 1990 World Cup was marred by several dour games, with teams focused on defensive tactics, hard tackling and doing anything to avoid losing, as opposed to trying to win. It was hardly surprising the competition produced four penalty shootouts — including both semifinals — as most nations decided to “play it safe.”

In the aftermath, FIFA quickly stepped in with several remedies and changed two key laws within the game of soccer. First, three points (no longer two) were awarded for a victory, a law that was meant to award teams that attack and encourage more goal-scoring. The other change outlawed the goalkeeper from picking up with his hands a direct back-pass from a teammate. This law not only cut down on time-wasting, but also kept the game moving and forced defenders to play the ball forward, thus relieving them of the safeguard of simply knocking the ball back to their goalkeeper whenever they were in trouble.

ZENGA SETS RECORD

Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga holds the record for the longest shutout streak in World Cup history. Zenga went 518 consecutive minutes (almost six games) without letting in a goal at the 1990 World Cup before Argentina’s Claudio Caniggia scored against Italy in the 67th minute in the semifinals. It was the first goal he conceded in the tournament.

MILAN DERBY AT THE WORLD CUP

The second round offered up some tantalizing matchups, none more so than the West Germany-Netherlands encounter in Milan. This was a spirited affair pitting Germany’s trio of Inter Milan players (Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme) against the AC Milan’s Dutch stars (Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit).

The match boiled over in the 21st minute when Rijkaard fouled Voller. The two came to blows and Rijkaard spat at Voller, accusing the German of hurling racial abuse at him. The two players were both expelled from the game, an exciting contest that the Germans went on to win 2-1.

DOUR DUTCH

Much was expected of the Netherlands in Italy (they won Euro ’88 in West Germany) and in Marco van Basten, they had one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the world and the reigning two-time European player of the year. But infighting plagued the Netherlands all tournament long, and van Basten failed to score while Ruud Gullit battled injury problems.

GERMANY-ENGLAND RIVALRY RENEWED

West Germany and England renewed their classic rivalry in the semifinals. Andy Brehme put the Germans up 1-0 with half an hour to go but Gary Lineker proved to be England’s saviour. He levelled the score with 10 minutes left in regulation.

Both teams went for it in extra time and England goalkeeper Peter Shilton was called upon to make brilliant saves from Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann. Paul Gascoigne, the talented but temperamental midfielder, picked up his second yellow card of the tournament. When he realized he would be ruled out for the final had England progressed, he pulled his shirt up to his face and began sobbing in a lasting and powerful moment that was beamed to millions of television viewers around the globe.

Eventually, the Germans prevailed in the shootout, Stuart Pierce and Chris Waddle missing for England.

MARADONA STOKES THE FIRE

Before the other semifinal in Naples, between Argentina and Italy, Maradona stoked the fires. The Argentine star played on the North-South tensions that defined Italian society, imploring the fans in Naples who worshipped him as the leader of Serie A team Napoli, to cheer for Argentina – “support Argentina and not Italy,” Maradona implored the Napoletani, “remember how badly you’re treated by the rest of Italy!”

This would be an ill-tempered match, the hard-tackling Argentines chopping down the Italians every chance they had. In total, five players from Argentina were booked, and Ricardo Giusti was expelled.

Maradona scored the decisive goal in the penalty shootout and Sergio Goycochea made two saves for Argentina to send the Italians crashing out of the competition.

QUIRKY FACTS

• Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer is the only man to win a World Cup both as a captain (1974) and coach (1990).

• The 1990 World Cup marked the first time both semifinals were decided by penalty shootout.

• West Germany’s Bodo Illgner is the first goalkeeper to record a shutout in a World Cup final.

• Italy (1934, 1990), France (1938, 1998), Mexico (1970, 1986), Germany (1974, 2006) and Brazil (1950, 2014) are the only countries to host two World Cups.

• Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup for illegal use of over-aged players in a FIFA youth tournament.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.