This article was first featured in Issue 6 of the Box To Box magazine on the World Cup with words by Oliver Marsh and accompanying illustration from Daryl Rainbow. Issue 6: An Assorted History of the World Cup is available to order here.
Before the Premier League, before £200 million could be spent on a man from Brazil who could kick a football better than most, one of the most iconic moments in football passed in the city of Turin, Italy. On the 4th of July 1990, England were knocked out on penalties by West Germany in the semi-final of the FIFA World Cup. The moment in question isn’t the 1-1 game itself, or the following penalty shoot-out, exhilarating though it was. This particularly special moment involved one man of the 22 on the pitch – and it is a moment that still matters to this day.
Though almost three decades apart in time, it is interesting to note certain parallels between the England team of Italia ’90, and the current crop of players heading to Russia 2018.
In both instances, their very participation in the tournament was brought into question. In 1990 football hooliganism was a huge issue in England, leading then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to consider withdrawing the team from the World Cup amid fears the tournament would provide a “natural focus” for this hooliganism. Meanwhile in 2018 MPs raised the possibility of boycotting the competition, in protest of recent controversial international events for which the host nation of Russia is being held accountable.
With this in mind, both the 1990 and the 2018 iteration of the England football team reached a major tournament with a cloud hanging over their heads, before they have even played a game. In addition to the pressure of winning games, both teams have the task of uniting a disenfranchised nation behind them. In 1990, hooliganism had given football a dirty name, meaning the sport was hardly permeating the zeitgeist for all corners of the country. On the other hand, England in 2018 is more divided than ever – still trying to figure out the divisions and fractures in society that have led to an uncertain ‘Brexit Britain’ future.
And this is where the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford can start taking note from former players like Gary Lineker and David Platt. In spite of a wider context that screamed doom-and-gloom, the Italia ’90 side did unite the nation in their thrilling journey to the semi-finals of the World Cup. It was the best run for an England side in the World Cup since the famous victory of 1966, and has not been matched since.
The current England team can learn many lessons from this journey, both bad and good. Defeat to West Germany on penalties in 1990 started an almost pathological fear of such shoot-outs afterward – the current players will want to win one in Russia, to buck this trend. 1990 gave us World In Motion by New Order – is it too much to ask for another good football song? It’s been over twenty years since Frank Skinner… But most of all, that night in Turin gave the fans a moment in time that above all others remains relevant to the connection between fans and players today.
On that night, with the semi-final between England and West Germany still 1-1 in extra-time, Paul Gascoigne was given a yellow card for an ill-fated challenge on Thomas Berthold. Up to this point, Gascoigne had been the standout player of Italia ‘90, thrilling not just England but the world with his legendary performances and youthful exuberance. But this yellow card meant that he would be suspended for the World Cup final, should England qualify. The lip quiver, the heartbreak writ large on his face and the tears that followed, would enchant a nation. England were knocked out by the end of that fateful evening, and Gazza’s tears in Turin became legend – a moment that will never be forgotten.
But there is a difference between a moment that will never be forgotten, and a moment that still matters. So you might ask, why do the tears in Turin still matter?
The journey to the semi-finals, the penalties, the songs… these are all important aspects to remember and learn from, but most of all the current England crop of players should remember the tears. Paul Gascoigne openly weeping that night proved that he was human after all, and that he cared about the fate of this footballing nation as much as any fan. In an era where the Premier League rakes in more money than ever before, and players can cost hundreds of millions of pounds, it becomes easy to forget that footballers are just people too. Inflated player wages have run the risk of creating a detachment between fan and player, making some wonder if they truly care about the fate of the team as much as the supporters, particularly for the international team.
It is time for players in this modern age to show that emotion, to truly display how gut-wrenching it is to be suspended for a game, to miss a tackle, to concede a goal. Playing well is one thing, and the fans very much want that – but playing with passion would elevate the team to another level in the hearts and minds of the country.
This translates on club-level also – just last month Mohamed Salah left the UEFA Champions League Final in tears, heartbroken that he would miss the biggest game in his life. Twenty-eight years after Paul Gascoigne, this simple emotion shown reminded Liverpool fans just how much it all meant to him too. We all want to believe it’s true, that players do care, but sometimes fans need a little reminder – both for club and country. So the tears in Turin still matter because they can remind us that playing with passion does more than just unite a team… it can unite a nation. If the players can show supporters just how much they care when wearing the Three Lions on the shirt, they can ensure that whatever the results are, the nation will be behind them every step of the way.