Defending champions, especially when they’re led by the world’s best player, are often expected to storm past minnows. They’re supposed to use the group games as warm up for the knockouts and big-games. When Argentina arrived in Italy for the 1990 World Cup, they were among the absolute favorites to defend their title. Diego Maradona was still in fine shape, and found a god-like status in Naples owing to his heroics for taking their club from mid-table fodder to league champions. 38 year-old Roger Milla of Cameroon wasn’t quite amused by this idea. Full time: Cameroon 1-0 Argentina. Italia ‘90 had begun well.
If not for astonishing goals and great football, this world cup would be remembered for the achievements of some of the less celebrated teams. Costa Rica reached the last 16 while Cameroon and Republic of Ireland made it to the quarters. World Cups are incomplete without upsets and these three ensured this edition would have its fair share of them, and some. Milla’s little jig at the corner flag after his goal against Romania is an iconic World Cup image. Cameroon rode on swift attacking movements and a tough(no, literally) defense to become Africa’s big hope. Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland played with a refreshingly positive intent and got rewarded for never giving up even against the big names.
Argentina shook off their shock defeat well enough and beat Brazil and Yugoslavia to reach the semis, where they met hosts Italy at Naples. Winners from 8 years back, and in astonishing health, domestic football wise, the Italians were on top of their game. They were one of the few teams who had a proper mix of young turks and experienced old guards. In their match against Czechoslovakia, a young ponytailed forward by the name of Roberto Baggio did this.
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Their hero however, was the little-known Juventus man Salvatore Schillacci. He scored 5 goals to take Italy to the semis. Baggio was curiously replaced by Gianluca Vialli against Argentina. Schillaci scored his 6th goal and took the match to a penalty shoot-out where the host nation capitulated. Argentina were going to play their second final in a row.
The other semi-final was between West Germany and England. Perennial under-achievers, England reached their first semi-final since winning the World Cup in 1966. Bobby Robson’s men had turned up not only in good shape, but played some quite brilliant football too. Paul Gascoigne was on the very, very peak of his powers was a sight to behold when on the ball. John Barnes and Gary Linekar were ideal foil for his talents and slowly but steadily, they made it to the semis. Were they expected to go any further? Maybe not, but that doesn’t take away the fight they gave Germany. It ended in tears for Gascoigne as he received a second yellow in the tournament, which meant he was going to miss the final.
Pushpa, I hate tears – Rajesh Khanna
The match went on to penalties where the Germans displayed their usual steely determination and efficiency to take out England. It was a repeat of last edition’s final: Argentina vs West Germany.
Andreas Brehme’s 85th minute penalty sealed a rather forgettable final. West Germany had won their 3rd World Cup and were now tied with Brazil and Italy. Franz Beckenbauer had won the world cup as captain in 1974 and here he was, winning it as coach. Though Mario Zagallo had done it as a player and coach in 1958 and 1970 respectively, he wasn’t the captain in ‘58, and certainly not half the legend Der Kaiser was. This was unprecedented. Germany’s three spearheads, Lothar Mattheus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme all played domestic football for Inter Milan, and enjoyed a near home support in their first five matches, all played at San Siro. While Klinsmann and Rudi Voller added spark to the attack, it was Mattheus’ sensational libero display that was actually responsible in shutting out European champs Netherlands, England, and as it turned out, Diego bloody Maradona in the finals. He debuted in the 1982 edition and played all matches in the next one, but hadn’t quite reached the levels he did here. He seemed to thrive on the extra responsibility captaincy put on him. For good measure, Mattheus scored three goals too, including the only goal against an extremely strong Czechoslovakia. Not sure if the word legend does enough justice to him.
Among the upsets, was a quite pathetic display by Netherlands, who had won the Euro just two years back and had entered the world cup as one of the favorites. It was later associated to fatigue from their domestic schedules and they came up ridiculously short against West Germany in the round of 16, where frustration led to Frank Rijkaard resorting to this:
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Brazil went from a dreamy display at ‘82, to a mediocre one at ‘86 to a quite shambolic one here. Winning their first three matches 1-0, they thought it would be enough. It was, until they ran into Diego Maradona in the round of 16. Claudio Canniga’s goal turned the same margin against them and they were out before having a single good game.