1990 and 2018 – a comparison

My father is a Londoner and my mother is a Belfastwoman – from a very early age I chose Arsenal as my club team for the former, and Northern Ireland as my international team for the latter. It has been a lot of fun – just enough disappointments to provide value for the glories, and just enough glories to cover for the disappointments!

Nevertheless, England’s arrival at the semi-final stage of the World Cup is remarkable – partly because of the relative youth of the team which as done it; and partly because it has taken so long. Comparable countries such as Italy, Germany and France have regularly appeared at this stage. England has managed it away from home just twice.

Unlike most of the current team, I do remember 1990 – and there are interesting parallels alongside the differences.

Firstly, it is hard to grasp that 1990 was actually nearer to the 1966 triumph than it is to now. Already, in 1990, it was becoming a noticeably long time since England had done anything at all – England had been knocked out at the quarter-final stage of three of the five intervening World Cups, and failed to qualify at all for the other two. A little like now, there was in fact little real expectation in 1990, although perhaps for different reasons – at the time, the whole country was feeling a little disgruntled as a recession set in, and football in particular was in the doldrums with English clubs banned from European competition due to hooliganism and stadiums being condemned after the deep shock of the Hillsborough disaster. Such was the level of trust towards English football, the team was deliberately placed on the Italian islands for its group games to keep its fans away from mainland cities.

In 1990, the opening game was far from spectacular – an ugly game against Jack Charlton’s Ireland finished 1-1. Perhaps a parallel with 2018, however, is that the second game provided some real hope – a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands, then European champions, was the beginning of “Gazzamania” and a sense that this English team could perhaps do something. Bizarrely, England went into the last group game with all the previous games in the group having been drawn, and secured the only win in the group as Mark Wright’s header eased out Egypt (coincidentally, the Egyptians did not return to the finals until this year).

The 1990 team was more experienced and had a better established defence, with Wright joined by Des Walker and, when needed, Terry Butcher. John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne provided the type of flair the 2018 model probably does not have; and Gary Lineker provided the goals (an obvious parallel, with current Spurs marksman Harry Kane doing likewise now). Perhaps, however, it lacked the youthful exuberance of the current side, although an emerging David Platt knew few bounds and was about to become a hero.

As in 2018, the 1990 side looked at the draw for the last sixteen and realised there was a once-in-a-generation chance to reach the semi; and, as in 2018, it looked like the trickier of the two ties en route would be the immediate one at the second round stage with the quarterfinal something of a walkover.

As it happened, England’s first knock-out game in 1990 was against Belgium, a team now ageing but which had just had its most golden age – reaching the semis at the previous tournament as well as a European final a decade earlier. The Belgians hit the woodwork twice but England also had a good goal disallowed (which would have stood in the VAR era) and, as with the game against the Netherlands, all seemed set for that rarest of entities – a genuinely entertaining 0-0 draw. However, just as penalties loomed, Gazza stepped up and chipped in a free-kick and young Platt swivelled to crash home a memorable volley, thus securing a place in the last eight.

As in 2018, the assumption was now that England would cruise into the semis for the first time since winning it a generation earlier. Unlike in 2018, it turned out to be nothing like as simple as that assumption. Platt again emerged to give England a half-time lead as in 2018. However, in 1990 opponents Cameroon, the first Africans ever in the last eight, hit back with two goals in five minutes midway through the second half to take a fully deserved lead. The English were eight minutes away from an ignominious exit and were running out of ideas until a hack on Gary Lineker allowed him to fire home an equaliser from the spot. The same man was fouled and scored again from the spot in extra-time to enable England to squeeze home.

There are definite parallels, therefore, that an England side which gave rise to little expectation suddenly spotted a draw at the last sixteen stage which gave a clear route to the semi, made the first knock-out game exciting, and then won the quarter-final. The feeling in 2018 is perhaps more one of bafflement about how uncomplicated England’s progress against Sweden was; in 1990, there was much more relief at the equivalent moment as the team was less than ten minutes from outright embarrassment in a game in which they had largely been on the back foot.

Of course, the semi itself is a different matter in this case. In 1990, the opposition was provided by a West German team which had appeared in three of the previous four and four of the previous six finals; even victory there would have secured a final showdown with either the hosts Italy or the holders Argentina. The game was watched by an English audience more in hope than any sort of expectation, but proved to be remarkably even and after Gary Lineker’s late equaliser in regulation resulted in the emotional trauma for English fans of the three-pointed tragedy of Gazza’s tears, Pearce’s error and Waddle’s blaze (made only worse by the fact Waddle also hit the inside of the post in extra time). In 2018, the opposition is a country smaller than Scotland. England are the favourites in a World Cup semi final for the first time in over half a century – failure to reach the showpiece itself would at best now be a significant disappointment.

For all that, it does seem that 2018 is doing something that 1990 did, but in a different context. The story of the World Cup does not involve England until 1950. A country which assumed it remained pre-eminent in the game went to Brazil that year and lost to the United States, a defeat so ludicrous that it was largely ignored for another three years until Hungary’s “Magnificent Magyars” stuffed England 6-3 and Wembley and left no doubt that the game had moved on technically and tactically. 1966 is significant not only because it provided England’s only World Cup win, but because it was seen as a “correction” of the previous thirteen years of not being the best. Four years at the pinnacle ended ignominiously, however, with a loss to West Germany having been 2-0 up in the 1970 quarter-finals and no further appearance in the finals at all until 1982, by which time football was all too often followed by the word “hooliganism”. With the game in the doldrums, the 1990 World Cup served to lift football out of the depths and, with the emergence of the Premier League two years later, it has gained public interest hugely since. However, the focus of English football on providing the world’s richest league rather than the world’s best international team led to a series of tragedies (in various penalty shoot-outs) and embarrassments (such as failures to qualify or losses to Iceland) as the Premier League’s star quality was complemented only by mediocrity in international tournaments.

By 2018, this mediocrity had become an accepted fact of life by most English supporters. This World Cup will, therefore, become known as the one which reminded them of what is possible at international level as well as club level. Still we hear the ghosts of past arrogance in some of the wildly exaggerated BBC and ITV commentary, but fundamentally there is an acceptance that a successful England team is a bonus not an expectation. That, alongside the manager’s own story (the man who missed the crucial penalty in the 1996 European Championship semis then leads his team to the World Cup semis via a penalty shoot-out – Netflix would be proud of that script!), has led to significant sympathy for the team even outside England in a way which is genuinely novel and exciting.

1990 played its part in taking the game out of the doldrums in England; 2018 will probably not prove quite as decisive, but it will take the national team out of the doldrums. Whether in the 2040s Harry Kane is presenting Match of the Day remains to be seen…

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