1990 World Cup: Beware of the Germans

In 1990, the World Cup returned to Italy, land of Armani and Versace, sun-splashed piazzas, and la dolce vita - the sweet life.

Germany defeated Maradona's Argentina in the final in Rome to join Italy and Brazil as the only three-time winners

Ahhh, Italia. Il paese bello - the beautiful country.

In 1990, the World Cup returned to Italy, land of Armani and Versace, sun-splashed piazzas, and la dolce vita - the sweet life.

In a country where style and culture is valued above all else, it seemed inevitable that the 1990 World Cup would be a remembered for producing graceful and sophisticated soccer. What we got instead was a macabre spectacle that filmmaker Federico Fellini himself could never have dreamed up.


Italia '90 was, barring a few moments of colour and inspiration, a dull and lifeless competition where crude physical play and cowardly defensive tactics ruled, topped off by what is universally considered the worst final in the storied history of the World Cup.


  • Number of participating teams: 24
  • Top scorer: Italy's Salvatore Schillaci (6 goals)
  • Number of games: 52
  • Total goals scored: 115
  • Average goals per game: 2.21
  • Highest scoring game: Czechoslovakia's 5-1 win over the United States on June 9, and West Germany's 5-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates on June 15
  • Total attendance: 2,517,348
  • Average attendance: 48,411,139

Goals were at a premium in Italy, which was to be the lowest-scoring World Cup ever. No less than four matches were decided by a penalty shootout, a staggering testament to how the cancerous mentality of playing "not to lose" had gripped the game.

The 24-team format used in 1986 was still in place, giving first-timers Costa Rica, the Republic of Ireland and the United Arab Emirates a solid chance at progressing beyond the first round.

Things started brightly enough on June 8 in Milan when Cameroon registered a 1-0 win over world champions Argentina. Diego Maradona, who was hobbled the entire tournament with a knee injury, and his teammates rallied quickly with a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union but they barely made it out of the first round, finishing third in Group B behind Cameroon and Romania.

Italy looked destined for a 0-0 draw in its first match against Austria in Rome, but the unheralded Salvatore Schillaci scored with 12 minutes left in regulation to lift the Azzurri to victory. A 1-0 win against the United States followed and Italy finished atop Group A after a 2-0 decision over Czechoslovakia, Schillaci netting the opener and Roberto Baggio scoring on a majestic solo run.

Like Italy, Brazil won all three games, but the surprise of Group C was Costa Rica. The tiny Central American country defeated Scotland and Sweden to move on to the knockout stage.

West Germany was one of the few teams committed to playing attacking soccer in Italy from the outset. Brazil and Italy won their groups by scoring a measly four goals, but the wonderful trio of Lothar Matthaus (liberated from his defensive duties from four years earlier in Mexico), Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller paced the Germans to 10 goals as they easily finished first in Group D ahead of Yugoslavia and Colombia.

Spain emerged in Group E ahead of Belgium and Uruguay, while England finished first in Group F: the English beat Egypt 1-0 after drawing Ireland and the Netherlands. All three nations made it to the next round despite only scoring two goals each in three games.

The second round offered up some tantalizing matchups, none more so than the West Germany-Netherlands encounter in Milan. This was a spirited affair pitting Germany's trio of Inter Milan players (Matthaus, Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme) against the AC Milan's Dutch stars (Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit).

The match boiled over in the 21st minute when Rijkaard fouled Voller. The two came to blows and Rijkaard spat at Voller, accusing the German of hurling racial abuse at him. The two players were both expelled from the game, an exciting contest that the Germans went on to win 2-1.

Much was expected of the Dutch in Italy (they won Euro '88 in West Germany) and in van Basten, they had one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the world and the reigning two-time European player of the year. But infighting plagued the Netherlands all tournament long, and van Basten failed to score while Gullit battled injury problems.

Brazil also fell in the second round, as Maradona came to life for the first time to lead Argentina to a 1-0 victory in Turin. Cameroon continued to win fans and defy the odds with a 2-1 victory over Colombia in extra time, the 38-year-old Roger Milla scoring both goals for the Africans.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: England's 3-2 victory over Cameroon in the quarter-finals. Leading 2-1 with 10 minutes to go, Cameroon was on the brink of becoming the first African nation to make it to the semifinals. A pair of Gary Lineker goals, including the game-winner in extra time, dashed that dream and allowed England to escape.

MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT: Salvatore Schillaci. A virtual unknown before the tournament, Schillaci became a national hero in Italy after guiding the Azzurri to the semifinals. Schillaci, nicknamed Toto, finished as the top scorer with six goals and won the Golden Ball award as the MVP. Not bad for a player who only appeared in one game for Italy before the tournament. Honourable mention to Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, West Germany's Lothar Matthaus and Cameroon's Roger Milla.

SPOTLIGHT: No player captured the hearts of spectators in Italy more than Cameroon's Roger Milla, the aging forward who became a fan favourite for his brilliant goals and colourful dance celebrations.

Milla played for Cameroon at the 1982 World Cup before walking away from the game and retiring in 1987 to the French Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean. He played for a small local club on the island but was coaxed out of retirement in 1990 when Cameroon called him up to play in the World Cup.

It was in Italy that Milla achieved global fame when he scored four goals, all as a substitute. Milla scored twice in Cameroon's 2-1 win over Romania in the first round to become, at 38 years and 20 days, the oldest player to ever score at the World Cup - a record he broke four years later.

Milla not only helped Cameroon to become the first African nation to reach the quarter-finals, but his country's success bore significant fruit for Africa. FIFA took notice of Cameroon's strong showing in Italy and allowed three African nations, as opposed to two, to compete at the 1994 World Cup.

AND ANOTHER THING: The 1990 competition ranks as the lowest scoring World Cup ever: the tournament averaged a meagre 2.21 goals per game.

The 1990 World Cup was marred by several dour games, with teams focused on defensive tactics, hard tackling and doing anything to avoid losing, as opposed to trying to win. It was hardly surprising the competition produced four penalty shootouts - including both semifinals - as most nations decided to "play it safe."

In the aftermath, FIFA quickly stepped in with several remedies and changed two key laws within the game of soccer.

First, three points (no longer two) were awarded for a victory, a law that was meant to award teams that attack and encourage more goal-scoring. The other change outlawed the goalkeeper from picking up with his hands a direct back-pass from a teammate.

This law not only cut down on time-wasting, but also kept the game moving and forced defenders to play the ball forward, thus relieving them of the safeguard of simply knocking the ball back to their goalkeeper whenever they were in trouble.

England also needed extra time to defeat Belgium, as did Yugoslavia to overcome Spain. Ireland held Romania scoreless for 120 minutes before pulling out a victory in a penalty shootout, while Costa Rica came crashing down to earth with a 4-1 loss to Czechoslovakia.

The Italians couldn't figure out Uruguay in Rome, but Schillaci came to the rescue once again, scoring in the 65th minute as Italy went on to win 2-0. With three goals in four games, the wide-eyed and demonstrative Sicilian was quickly becoming a folk hero in Italy.

It was in the quarter-finals where Ireland, with only two goals in its previous four games, was duly put to the sword by Italy. Schillaci - who else? - scored the winner just before halftime.

Argentina was not the same team that dazzled its opponents with flair and panache four years earlier in Mexico, but instead a dour, defensive one that took to regularly hacking down its opponents with brutal tackles and diving to the ground to draw fouls.

The champions sat back against Yugoslavia in Florence, soaking up the pressure and happy to play to a 0-0 draw before pulling out a victory in a penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, called into action after starter Neri Pumpido broke his leg in Argentina's second game, made three saves to help the champions escape with the victory.

England was also lucky to escape. Goals by Emmanuel Kunde and Eugene Ekeke four minutes apart in the second half gave Cameroon a 2-1 lead, an advantage they held until the 83rd minute when Gary Lineker scored on a penalty shot to tie the game. Lineker converted from the penalty spot again in extra time, sending Cameroon home but not before winning over fans with their indomitable spirit and heart.

The Germans had a rough go of it against Czechoslovakia in Milan, but luckily they had Lothar Matthaus, who was in the form of his life. Matthaus led them to a 1-0 victory after scoring in the 21st minute.

The semifinals, both decided by penalty shootout, provided further evidence of the overwhelming "avoid losing at all costs" mentality that had a stranglehold on the tournament.

In Turin, West Germany and England renewed their classic rivalry. Brehme put the Germans up 1-0 with half an hour to go but Lineker - like he had done so many times before throughout his career - proved to be England's saviour. He levelled the score with 10 minutes left in regulation.

Both teams went for it in extra time and England goalkeeper Peter Shilton was called upon to make brilliant saves from Matthaus and Klinsmann. Paul Gascoigne, the talented but temperamental midfielder, picked up his second yellow card of the tournament. When he realized he would be ruled out for the final had England progressed, he pulled his shirt up to his face and began sobbing in a lasting and powerful moment that was beamed to millions of television viewers around the globe.

Eventually, the Germans prevailed in the shootout, Stuart Pierce and Chris Waddle missing for England.

Before the other semifinal in Naples, between Argentina and Italy, Maradona stoked the fires.

The Argentine star played on the North-South tensions that defined Italian society, imploring the fans in Naples who worshipped him as the leader of Serie A team Napoli, to cheer for Argentina - "support Argentina and not Italy," Maradona implored the Napoletani, "remember how badly you're treated by the rest of Italy!"

This would be an ill-tempered match, the hard-tackling Argentines chopping down the Italians every chance they had. In total, five players from Argentina were booked, and Ricardo Giusti was expelled.

As always, Schillaci drew first blood, scoring in the 17th minute, but as the game progressed, Argentina slowly assumed control. Walter Zenga, the Italian goalkeeper, flailed at a hardly troublesome cross from the left wing but somehow missed it. Behind him stood Claudio Caniggia who, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, duly headed the ball into the net.

The Italians, for the first time in the tournament, had conceded a goal and were sent reeling. Argentina continued to run Italy into the ground with its physical tackling, while at the same time playing a tight defensive game. It was obvious the Argentines wanted to play for the tie and take their chances in the penalty shootout.

And so they did, Maradona scoring the decisive goal and Goycochea making two saves for Argentina to send the Italians, inexplicably, crashing out of the competition.

Italy salvaged some pride in the third-place game against England, Schillaci securing the tournament scoring title with a goal in the 86th minute from the penalty spot to lift the Azzurri to a 2-1 victory in Bari.


And so to the final in Rome where Argentina, viewed as the villains for their foul play, constant diving and ultra-cautious attitude, clashed with West Germany, the beacon of attacking soccer in the competition, in a repeat of the 1986 final.

Claudio Caniggia was ruled out for the game (he picked up his second yellow card of the tournament in the semifinal), and Maradona was practically a cripple (his knee problems still bothering him). It was hardly a surprise, then, that Argentina maintained its modus operandi of brutal physical play and disgraceful defensive tactics against the Germans.

In what is universally considered the worst World Cup final ever (thanks in large part to Argentina) the Germans dominated a dull first half with Voller looking the most dangerous. The Rome crowd, having not forgotten Maradona's plea to the locals in Naples before the semifinals, booed his every touch of the ball.

The game grew uglier in the second half. The Argentines continued to hack away at the Germans and it became increasingly clear they were, again, looking to survive the game and take their chances in a penalty shootout.

The champions were made to pay for their contemptuous behaviour in the 65th minute when Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal red-carded Pedro Monzon for a vicious foul on Klinsmann. In becoming the first player sent off in a World Cup final, Monzon made the task of his teammates, looking to drag the game into a penalty shootout, much more difficult.

The match turned in the Germans' favour when Roberto Sensini fouled Voller inside the penalty area. The referee immediately pointed to the spot, although it appeared Voller somewhat theatrically fell to the ground.

It was hard to feel sorry for Argentina, though - they had set the standard for diving throughout the tournament - and Andreas Brehme converted the 85th-minute penalty to kill off the game.

Gustavo Dezotti joined Monzon in World Cup infamy when he was red-carded for grabbing Jurgen Kohler by the throat. Minutes later the game was over and West Germany joined Brazil and Italy as three-time winners.

A dejected Argentina team stood with hand on hips on the field, and though they could hardly have any complaints about the outcome, Maradona openly wept while Matthaus lifted the World Cup trophy.


  • Germany's Franz Beckenbauer is the only man to win a World Cup both as a captain (1974) and coach (1990). Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga holds the record for the longest shutout streak in World Cup history. Zenga went 517 consecutive minutes (almost six games) without letting in a goal at the 1990 World Cup before Argentina's Claudio Caniggia scored against Italy in the 67th minute in the semifinals. It was the first goal he conceded in the tournament.
  • The 1990 World Cup marked the first time both semifinals were de cided by penalty shootout.
  • West Germany's Bodo Illgner is the first goalkeeper to record a shutout in a World Cup final.
  • What a difference a couple of decades make: the 1934 World Cup in Italy averaged 4.12 goals per game, while the 1990 competition averaged 2.21.
  • Incredibly, the United Arab Emirates booked its place in Italy with just one victory (they tied four times) and four goals scored (two of them in a 2-1 win over China) in five matches during the final round of the Asian qualifiers.
  • Italy (1934, 1990), France (1938, 1998), Mexico (1970, 1986) and Germany (1974, 2006) are the only countries to host two World Cups. Ten of the 12 stadiums used in 1990 were given a complete facelift, while the other two (Turin and Bari) were built especially for the tournament.
  • During Brazil's home game against Chile in the 1989 qualifiers, a spectator from the stands threw a firecracker that landed close to Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas. Rojas began bleeding and had to be helped off the field and his teammates, losing 1-0 at the time, refused to play on, citing the dangerous conditions. Video examination of the incident later on showed Rojas feigned injury (the firework did not make contact with him) and that he deliberately cut himself. Rojas was given a lifetime suspension (later overturned in 2001) and Chile was banned from the 1994 World Cup.
  • Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup for illegal use of over-aged players in a FIFA youth tournament.