Sadly, the World Cup of 1990 assembled all of these forces: “Italia 90 condensed the new social forces remaking European football: saturation media coverage, high commercials takes and the repackaged spectacular. It was perhaps the most gruelling, defensive and mean-minded tournament yet staged.”
The atmosphere at the World Cup in Italy was from the start hateful and very nationalistic, and the teams participating living off this like vultures. Foul play was ignored or even glorified in the case of Cameroon, Argentina or Italy, as long as victory was achieved.
On the pitch fans saw the World Cup with the lowest goal-scoring average ever; most teams, notably Argentina, Italy and Ireland played immensely defensive football. There was only one match where both teams scored more than one goal, with most penalty kick decisions and a record in the number of red cards.
It was the worst World Cup ever played, and the final was no exception: it is widely regarded as the worst final ever played as West Germany defeated Argentina 1-0 to win their third world title in a repeat of the 1986 final, when Argentina had won.
It was thus time for revenge, and the entire atmosphere around the final was hugely hateful and negative. Argentina had during the entire tournament played very defensively and negative football, reaching the final on the moments of glory of Diego Maradona and Claudio Cannigia, as well as spectacular goalkeeping by Sergio Goycoechea. Diego Maradona, who had become a controversial superstar in Italy while playing for Napoli, was particularly the target of a European media and fans who saw little tolerance in a star from a Third World country who was very provocative and immersed in scandals, but yet brought glory to every little team he played for, like the ever-discriminated city of Naples in southern Italy.
Maradona was hated in Europe, and this World Cup was Europe’s reckoning in the country where Maradona had shined for Napoli.
Argentina only added to the hate by playing destructive football, although their sensational defeat to Cameroon in the opening match had been as much due to harsh play by the Africans. In any case, Argentina made it through to the last-16 barely, and meeting Brazil they won 1-0 as sensationally as they had lost to Cameroon in a match where Brazil had all the chances in the world. In the quarterfinal Argentina defeated the splendid Yugoslav side (playing their last World Cup as a unified country) after penalty kicks where Sergio Goycoechea had saved two penalties. In the semifinal the Argentineans had again sensationally defeated the home team of Italy in Naples after penalty kicks, and were in spite of their unpopularity, destructive play and poor playing ready to defend their World Cup title in Rome.
West Germany was also playing its last World Cup: in November 1989 the Berlin wall had fallen, and soon the two Germanies would unite to form one Germany. Although Germany still awakened much fear in Europe and few people particularly supported them, there was no doubt that they had been the best team of the tournament.
In 1982 and 1986 the German national side had been one of the least popular sides, but making two World Cup finals. In 1990, as most other great teams were either destructive or inefficient, the Germans emerged as an outstanding side, captained by one of the best players of all time, the all-round Inter and former Bayern Munich star Lothar Matthäus, the West Germans had surely emerged as the (for many grumbling) stars of the tournament.
The Germans started the tournament by destroying Yugoslavia and the United Arab Emirated 4-1 and 5-1 respectively, and a 1-1 with Colombia was enough for them to win the group. In the last-16 the Germans defeated the defending European champions of the Netherlands 2-1 in a dramatic match, and in the quarterfinals Czechoslovakia (also playing their last World Cup as a united country) were defeated 1-0 on a Lothar Matthäus penalty goal.
In the semifinal the West Germans faced their eternal English rivals in what for the English was the best World Cup since 1966. In a tense match that ended 1-1, West Germany won after extra time, and although they were not playing splendid football, they were certainly the favourites in the final against Argentina.
To illustrate the hateful atmosphere of the tournament, thousands of fans disrespectfully booed through the Argentinean national anthem before the match. The Argentineans (without some of their best players, notably Claudio Cannigia who was banned for the final) saw their only chance in winning by playing destructively, while the German team was unable or not good enough to break through the defense, as well as being afraid of making mistakes the Argentineans were so good at taking advantage of.
It was a horrible final, and in spite of the Germans having more possession, nothing happened. First half ended 0-0, and there were hardly any chances in the second half either.
Halfway through the second half the Independiente defender Pedro Monzón, who had come on as a substitute for Oscar Ruggeri, received a red card by the Mexican referee Eduardo Codesal for a challenge on Jurgen Klinsmann.
It was the first time a player was sent off in a World Cup final, further underlining the negativity of this tournament.
Down to ten men Argentina continued defending without the Germans getting any clear chances. It was obvious that the South Americans were hoping to win like they had done in the previous two matches, by penalty kicks, counting on their outstanding goalkeeper. But only five minutes before the end Eduardo Codesal awarded the Germans a very friendly penalty kicks on a challenge on the splendid Roma striker Rudi Völler. The defender from Inter, Andreas Brehme, who had previously scored on free kicks against the Netherlands and England, scored on a well-shot penalty, although Goycoechea had seen its direction.
The penalty was enough to make West Germany world champion, but before the match another Argentinean, Cremonese’s Gustavo Dezotti was harshly sent off as the second player ever to receive this dubious honour in a World Cup final.
There was enormous criticism of the Mexican referee in Argentina in particular, as his decisions clearly favoured the Germans. That said, as a whole, West Germany was without a doubt the best team of the tournament and the right world champions, although it is overshadowed by the poor tournament and absolutely horrible final.
The German coach Franz Beckenbauer, who had captained the German winning side in 1974, became the second person ever to win the World Cup as both as a coach and a player (the first being Mario Zagallo for Brazil in 1958 and 1970).
In spite of all this, any football fan was only looking forward to improvement of the game that had sunk to its lowest in Italy. The 1994 World Cup in the USA was fortunately a rebirth of football both in the sense of the fans (who in USA showed a new friendly side) and in the way of the game, as new teams (some of the great ones as England and France did not qualify), new rules and new tendencies greatly promoted the renewal of football.
The 1990 final is one of the greatest matches of all time, but not for positive reasons.
- 8th July, 1990, Stadio Olimpico, Rome
- Attendance: 73,603
- Referee: Eduardo Codesal (Mexico)
Goals: 1-0 Brehme (85) (pen)
West Germany: Illgner, Brehme, Kohler, Augenthaler, Buchwald, Berthold (Reuter), Haessler, Littbarski, Matthaus, Klinsmann, Voller
Argentina: Goycoechea, Ruggeri (Monzón), Simon, Lorenzo, Serrizuela, Sensini, Burruchaga (Calderon), Basualdo, Troglio, Dezotti, Maradona