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I hadn’t yet reached my seventh birthday when Italia 90 took place, and yet I am more familiar with it than any World Cup since, and I am not alone in that. For 80s and 90s kids it remains the World Cup. Pure theatre that captivated the imagination of a generation.

I don’t have too many specific memories of watching the games live, although I undoubtedly did, but one that sticks out is of being sat on the settee with my dad – he always pulled it up close to the telly for big games – and jumping up and down with him, punching the air and shouting uncontrollably as David Platt’s overhead volley in the last minute of extra-time broke Belgian hearts in the second round. I was hooked.

 

Eight days later I watched England’s penalty shoot-out defeat to the Germans from behind that settee, unable to take the pressure. As the Germans celebrated, I followed Mum to the kitchen and stood in silence in the door as she made a cup of tea.

Over the next two or three years, every Saturday morning after Going Live! with Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene finished on BBC1, Dad took me and my sister to the video rental shop so we could each pick something to keep us quiet for the afternoon. Every single week, without fail, I picked one of two videos, alternating on a weekly basis between: Every Goal of Italia ’90, and Highlights Of The 1990 World Cup. I watched them religiously, often two or three times on the same day.

I knew every player, every goal, every celebration, every fan seen in the stands or, in the case of the Romanians, filmed dancing outside the stadium in Bari, and every piece of accompanying commentary by heart. Thirty years later I still do; right down to the blonde Brazilian woman crying at the final whistle, signalling defeat and elimination to bitter rivals Argentina, that 8-year old me was deeply in love with.

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The two videos that define my childhood

Recently, while procrastinating on the internet, reminiscing over Italia ’90, I came across an excerpt of a book – World in Motion, by Simon Hart – and it got my juices flowing enough that I ordered a copy for my Kindle and got stuck right in. I was instantly gald that I did; I can’t remember reading a more enjoyable book. Simon Hart has absolutely smashed it with his effort.

The access he has to the faces of Italia ’90 is astounding. Seemingly every name that resonates from that World Cup, plus a whole load more that don’t but should, was interviewed for the book. Hart traversed the planet tracking them down: one minute he is sitting in Sergio Goycochea’s restaurant in Buenos Aires eating a steak with the owner, the next he’s in Cameroon legend Roger Milla’s living room in Yaoundé, the next he’s in Toto Schillaci’s club house in Palermo discussing hair transplants with the tournament’s most iconic player. When he’s not chatting with them face to face, he’s got them on Whatsapp or Skype. On top of that, he has seemingly read every single one of their autobiographies, every interview they’ve ever given to every obscure magazine, no matter the language, and every book with even a mention of one of them in it. The level of research is mindblowing.

The result of all of this painstaking work is a book full of fascinating and often hilarious insight, straight from the mouths of those directly involved.

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The book is broken down into three sections: First Round, Knockout and Final.

Each chapter focuses on a particular team or match – only one group, Group E: Belgium, Spain, South Korea, Uruguay, isn’t covered in minute detail – and reads like a collection of short essays, detailing the subplot to each country’s participation, a bit of history and the stories told by the protagonists. It shouldn’t be forgotten that 1990 was a fascinating time for the world off the pitch as much as it was on it; a number of the participating countries would no longer exist come the next World Cup in 1994. Even eventual champions West Germany were playing their last tournament together before unifying with their brothers to the east.

Hart’s book takes us on a nostalgic journey, all the way from the monumental shock of the opening match in Milan, as defending champions Argentina, led by Diego Maradona, were humbled by the underdogs of Cameroon, a result that reverberated around the world and would be remembered forever, not least of all for a certain tackle that would go down in history as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) ever made.

Who can forget the iconic commentary?

“He’s hurdled past one….. he’s got past another, in the last minute of this game….. in goes Massing and ohhhhh he won’t get past that challenge! And the referee surely will do something about that.”

As the solitary figure of Massing slowly recovers the boot sent flying from his foot in the tackle, Argentina’s number 7 Burruchaga cheekily treads on that yellow stockinged foot, causing Massing to kick out. As the boot is put back on, no less than six Argentine players swarm around the ref, who stands over the body of the chopped down Caniggia, lying in a heap on the grass, struggling to give a roll to let us know he has survived the assault. The ref blows his whistle to call Massing over, like headmaster to naughty schoolboy. Massing returns to his feet and paces unapologetically towards the ref, who pulls the red card from his top pocket and brandishes it dramatically above his head. Massing turns and heads for the tunnel, no arguments.

Massing was the second Cameroonian to be sent off that day, following the dismissal of Kana-Biyik in the 72nd minute. In the book, Massing tells Hart, who has tracked him down to his home in Cameroon, that on entering the changing room he found Kana-Biyik sitting in there on his own. When he saw that his team-mate had joined him, he assumed that the match was over and started raising his arms in celebration, only to be cut short by Massing: “No, they’ve sent me off too.”

 

Right up to the final a month later in Rome, in which Argentina’s national anthem was whistled from start to finish by the whole stadium, mostly Italians, and Diego Maradona, with the whole world watching, not once but twice right to the camera venomously mouthed the words “Hijos de puta,” sons of bitches.

Italia ’90, pure, unadulterated theatre.

 

World in Motion is excellently written; Hart’s prose often beautifully evocative, brimming with sentences like the following:

“Yet, Maradona was Maradona. His speed and strength may have been diminished by the kicks and the cortisone and the cocaine, but he remained the wasp in the room; opponents lived with the nagging fear of his capacity to unleash a sudden sting.”

Above all, what makes this book the special read that it is are the offerings of the players, which at times are intentionally hilarious, and at other times unintentionally so. Take legendary Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita’s response to being asked about that infamous moment against Cameroon in their second round tie, in which he seemed to forget that he was a goalkeeper and not a footballer, only to get mugged by Roger Milla in comical fashion:

“If it were today, Barcelona would sign me and I’d be playing there. It’s what they need in football now – goalkeepers who come out and play. There are different ways of protecting your goal – some play between their posts, some inside their eighteen-yard box, others outside. I was a complete goalkeeper. Today I’d be in a team like Barcelona.”

 

While we’re on the subject of Roger Milla, a few years ago when I felt my French was at a decent enough level, I decided it was time to tackle my first book in the language. The book I chose was Milla’s autobiography, Une Vie de Lion. After finishing it, I came away with the impression that I wasn’t as keen on Roger Milla the man as I was on Roger Milla the footballer. I found him to be a bit of a big head. So I wasn’t surprised with any of the quotes he gave to Simon Hart in World in Motion.

On that goal against Higuita: “You can’t get that intelligence from going to school.”

On his two goals against Romania: “These were the goals of a centre forward, a great centre forward, because not just any centre forward can do what I did in that match.”

And on his second goal in particular against Romania: “Nobody in the world had seen anything like it – a player playing himself in on his own. It deserves consideration. If I wasn’t black they’d talk more about that goal. No other player in the world has done that. Even Pelé, the King himself, said that nobody had done what I did there.”

Alright Roger, turn it down a bit mate.

 

Still, what an absolute legend.

The funniest stories in the book mostly come from the Republic of Ireland camp, and are often recounted by Tony Cascarino, the man who famously racked up 88 caps for Ireland without having any connection to the country whatsoever.

Ireland manager Jack Charlton’s motivational speech the night before they took on Italy in the quarter final: “Right lads, we’re going to have dinner at seven thirty, and after dinner, you’re going to have a couple of kegs of Guinness delivered, and you’re going to have a pint or two. You’ll sleep well tonight. You’re playing Italy in their own backyard, you’re going to get beat, so have a couple of pints.”

Another story told by Cascarino covers the time Jack Charlton’s predecessor as manager Eoin Hand accepted a bet from a football journalist that he (the journalist) could beat Ireland defender Mick McCarthy in a race. Hand forced the player to take part, telling him he had no choice as he had 50 quid riding on the outcome. You will have to read the book if you want to know who won, but in Cascarino’s words, the victor “won by an ant’s cock.”

Meanwhile, in the England camp, the players were entertaining themselves at manager Bobby Robson’s expense. Gary Lineker tells one cringeworthy story, about the pre-match meeting before the semi-final against Germany:

“He (Bobby Robson) was always a bit late, and whilst he was late, I put on this board ‘Even money he mentions the war.’ Then I put the sheet back down, and Bobby comes in, and we’re all sitting there, and he goes, ‘We beat them in the war.’ It was his first words and there was this uproar in the whole room.”

Robson wasn’t the only one mentioning the war, as the back page of British tabloid Today had a mocked up image of Germany manager Franz Beckenbauer flying a WW1 plane. It brings me no sadness to note that Today ceased to exist in 1995.

When asked by Hart if the topic ever came up in the German changing room, a bemused Thomas Berthold, German defender, tells him, “No, never ever. It’s too far away for us. My grandfather was in the war but not myself.”

On a personal level, the chapters I found the most fascinating were those focusing on the Eastern European teams, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the USSR and Yugoslavia, as while these players  were trying to navigate their way through World Cup qualification and then the tournament itself, back home their countries were falling to bits.

Maybe the most amazing story in the book concerns the Czechoslovakian forward Ivo Knoflíček who, fed up with conditions in his country but not allowed to leave, fled illegally after being promised that he would be granted refugee status in England, where he would be signed by Derby County, then owned by Robert Maxwell. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but the adventure that unfolds is highly captivating, and you can only feel for the man whose hair, still today according to Simon Hart, is “a magnificently intact 1980s mullet.”

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Meanwhile, the Yugoslavia team came into the World Cup on the back of having their national anthem whistled and booed by, what were supposed to be, their own fans in Zagreb, during their final warm-up match against the Netherlands. Later that evening, the Croatian crowd filled the air with chants of “Holland, Holland.”

This came hot on the heals of the Yugoslavian league match between Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), in Zagreb, in which violence between the two sets of supporters is said by many to have been the spark that ignited the Yugoslav wars which would engulf the now ex-country of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. It was during that day’s fighting that Croatian player Zvonimir Boban, then just 20 years old, flying kicked a policeman, breaking his jaw, and received a six-month ban from football for his efforts, meaning he would miss Italia ’90.

Reading the numerous differing points of view on this period in the history of the Yugoslav national team, and the country in general, for me, made the chapter on Yugoslavia the most interesting one in the book.

 

I’ll finish this review / love letter to World In Motion with what I found to be the most telling detail in the book. Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo refusing to deny handing Brazil playmaker Branco a bottle of water laced with date rape drug Rohypnol just before half-time in their second round encounter. He doesn’t admit it either.

If you have any sort of interest in Italia ’90 or even just in football, I highly recommend you go and get a copy of this book, available either in old-fashioned paper form, or for your Kindle.

And if you’ve already read World in Motion, you can always pick up a copy of my own book Gatecrashing Europe, about a penniless adventure that took in every capital city in Europe.

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RIP Benjamin Massing, 1962-2017