If Italia '90 was a grainy Fellini masterpiece, complex, tense and unafraid to lay bare humanity at its ugliest and, therefore, most real, four years later football had already crossed the line into pure Disney fantasy.
Diego Maradona's impossibly swollen ankle. The emergence of Sergio Goycochea from nowhere to become a hero. That wonderful link-up between Maradona and Caniggia to destroy Brazil. Naples declaring its love for the Albiceleste captain even as he plotted to crush Italy's dreams of glory on home soil. Bilardo's bidón antics to leave Branco groggy, the whistles of the Stadio Olimpico, pride even in defeat and a heroes' welcome back home.
The last month has seen an outpouring of nostalgia pour from every possible orifice in Argentina, as the gripping adventures of the nation's 1990 World Cup team are recalled on the 30th anniversary of that iconic tournament.
Italia '90, as it has become known in shorthand across the world of football, does not occupy a privileged position in the game's memory. The lowest-scoring World Cup in history, it is remembered less as a festival of open play than as a gritty, tense battle from start to finish, provoking upon its completion a raft of rule changes to save a sport which, on the evidence of what is supposedly its greatest spectacle, was in a moribund state. In recent years, however, one can sense a certain shift in thinking, a greater appreciation of what the tournament had to offer. And perhaps nowhere in the world is it recalled with greater fondness than in Argentina.
Those memories are somewhat at odds with the image Carlos Bilardo's intensely pragmatic, safety-first Albiceleste line-up left on much of the rest of the footballing world, from the very beginning of the World Cup.
“Against Cameroon, everyone wanted Cameroon to win,” Jonathan Wilson, journalist and author of the exhaustive history of Argentine football, Angels with Dirty Faces, told the Times. “Cameroon were exciting, they were the underdog, they got stitched up with the two red cards – one was justified, one extremely harsh – they'd played really well in 1982 and gone out in the group stage on goals scored. That opening game people definitely wanted Cameroon to win.
“Then [Argentina played] a lovely Yugoslavia team, with Stojkovic and the rest, and also with the political circumstances around Yugoslavia, to slay another popular team... and then they played the hosts, so in every game, I can see why the rest of the world was on the other side,” said Wilson.
Wilson, the writer of the award-winning tactics tome Inverting The Pyramid, says some in Argentina even seem to prefer the Italia ‘90 side to the 1986 World-Cup winning team.
“It forced Bilardo into a position which he was probably not too unhappy to be in, it's us against the world, but what I really still find bewildering is that they win the World Cup in 1986, playing some brilliant, memorable football with great goals, and yet you get this weird sense that the 1990 team is preferred to it because they scrapped and battled their way through.
“Even with hindsight, while I can admire the organisation, the doggedness, the determination and unwillingness to go out, the idea that's somehow preferable to what they did four years earlier is very alien to someone who is not Argentine or maybe Uruguayan.”
Attacked from all sides
The notion that Bilardo's side were being attacked from all sides – both on the field, from the Italian crowds that turned against them from the very first game, and even from those in charge – certainly plays a big part in recollections of 1990, making it a landmark tournament in a way not seen, to take one example, as with Alejandro Sabella’s finalists of 2014.
“That national team was 10,000 times more streetwise than in ‘86; it was a team of men,” Maradona told Clarín in an interview marking the anniversary last month. “Today the kids understand how hard it is to win a World Cup, and we were so close to getting two in a row.”
Those two consecutive final appearances encapsulate two sides of the Argentine football mentality in the popular view. On the one hand, 1986 was a showcase for the nation's outrageous natural talent, personified of course in the impossibly elegant left foot of their captain and standard-bearer. The other side of the coin is the steely determination not to allow any opponent, no matter how strong, to get the better of you or, even worse, take you for an idiot or a 'sucker.' It may not have been pretty to watch at times, but on that account Argentina's 1990 line-up doubtlessly made their nation proud.
In a tournament dominated in the Argentine conscious by a sense of the 'epic' – from their humiliating opening-game defeat at the hands of Cameroon to missing out in agonising fashion in the final against West Germany – Wilson singles out the semi-final against Italy, played in Maradona's beloved San Paolo stadium (the home of Napoli) as the Selección's greatest feat.
“There was this perception that things were rigged against them,” he added. “I'm not saying it was, but when you play the hosts in a semi-final that is hard. There's all that amazing footage of the asado in the Argentina camp with Maradona's dad grilling the meat, you get the sense that the camp was very tight,” he told the Times. “A flag also got ripped down at the training camp. There were all of these little things which I can see how they can build up so Argentina believed the world was against them.”
The spirit certainly shone through. “That performance against Italy was sensational, to go behind and to get it back, you felt that when it went to penalties there was only one team that was going to win that,” said Wilson.
While the Class of 1990 has always been treated with the utmost admiration by the Argentine public, as the years go by that World Cup more generally has enjoyed a certain rehabilitation in its image, as recent memory fades into rose-tinted nostalgia. Without a doubt, Italia '90 marks a type of watershed in football and in history on a wider scale – Champions West Germany are no more, of course, the nation's reunification coming just three months after lifting the nation's third World Cup.
International football stalwarts the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia also played their final tournament under those shared flags prior to break-up, while that brilliant Yugoslavia team of the early ‘90s was also dismantled.
“If you take [Eric] Hobsbawn's definition of the short 20th century running from 1918 to 1991, it's the last World Cup of that century,” Wilson said. “Even the stadiums, they didn't have that same antiseptic feeling that they all have ever since, they were really iconic and distinctive in a way that stadiums haven't been since.”
As fate would have it, the first World Cup to be held following the defeat of Soviet Communism was staged in the backyard of its mortal enemy, the United States, heralding a new age of global audiences and hyper-commercialisation into the game that has only grown with each passing year. If Italia '90 was a grainy Fellini masterpiece, complex, tense and unafraid to lay bare humanity at its ugliest and, therefore, most real, four years later football had already crossed the line into pure Disney fantasy.
“In the question of what makes a great World Cup, there are two halves to the story,” Wilson states. “One is the quality of the football played, and on that score, 1990 was awful. But the other half of the equation is, are there memorable storylines, things you can talk about 30 years later? If you're English, Argentine, German, Irish, if you're Cameroonian, yes – you have so many great storylines there, it almost doesn't matter how terrible the football is.”
Above all, perhaps, 1990 was a cultural and aesthetic delight, from the fantastic Un'estate italiana theme song to the grand old stadiums which played host, right up to the Three Tenors joining for the first time to sing Nessum Dorma from the Baths of Caracalla prior to the final. It deserves to be remembered in the fondest of terms not just in Argentina, but across the footballing world.