England Qualifying Campaigns: 1990 World Cup – Robson’s slow road to redemption

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Ahead of England returning to qualifying action next month for Euro 2016 after a poor record at the World Cup finals in Brazil, we recall when they came home from the horror show of Euro ’88 and began the process of attempting to make it to Italia ’90. Bobby Robson was a man under pressure and faced a tough job rebuilding pride and his reputation. It was a rocky path at times, but he would get them there although he would have to wait for the finals for the tide to properly turn in his favour…

England’s route to Italia ’90 really began in December 1987 when the qualifying draw was made. At that point Robson’s side were still celebrating qualifying with an unbeaten record for the European Championships and being one of the favourites to win it. They had no reason to fear other sides in the World Cup qualifying draw and were one of the seeded teams. The draw, not unlike the eventual qualifying process as a whole for England, would prove to be a case of ‘could have been better, could have been worse’.

They crucially avoided the Dutch from pot two, landing Poland who had reached the past four World Cups but were entering a period of decline. They could have drawn an easier side from pot three than Sweden, but they had not qualified for a major tournament for a decade. And Albania were a candidate for the weakest team in pot four, being something of an unknown quantity to the English. The Three Lions were favourites to progress, but being drawn in one of the groups with just four teams meant they would have to finish top to be sure of a World Cup spot. In an era before play-offs became the norm for second place sides, if they had the poorest of the runners-up records from the three groups with four teams in then they would miss out.

But thoughts of the World Cup were put on hold as England focused on their Euro ’88 preparations. Gradually, things began to go wrong with Terry Butcher ruled out with a broken leg and the goals drying up as the finals approached. When they began, Robson’s men would infamously lose all three games and the manager found his future under scrutiny. The use of the term ‘Plonker’ by Del Boy to Rodney in Only Fools and Horses may have been good natured, but it certainly wasn’t when tabloid newspapers screamed out the term about Robson after a bad result. Crucially though, the FA stood by him after Robson appeared set for the axe as the side flopped in West Germany.

Those who demanded my resignation – and I am thinking in particular about specific newspapers – will be disappointed to hear me reinforce my decision not to quit. It might have crossed my mind, fleetingly, when I wondered if my family could cope with almost intolerable strain, that I should step down. But I am not a quitter and will not back down,”  Bobby Robson in his first programme notes after the European Championship.

Robson wields the axe
As the dust settled on Euro ’88, Robson knew he had to act and make tough decisions to regain the winning formula by dispensing with members of his core squad of players. Kenny Sansom, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley and Dave Watson played for Robson for the last time in the finals, while Viv Anderson and Peter Reid were never recalled after winning their final caps shortly before the tournament. Tony Adams played the first three games after Euro ’88 but was never picked again by Robson and fellow central defender Mark Wright was discarded until April 1990 before coming back to prominence at Italia ’90.

In their place would emerge an abundance of new players, gradually phased in with 17 new caps awarded between September 1988 and December 1989. The key men to enter the squad were Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker, David Platt and Des Walker, who would all start the 1990 World Cup semi-final, while players such as Steve Bull and David Rocastle would also establish themselves in the squad. For several others like Brian Marwood, Mike Phelan and Mel Sterland it would be a very short international road, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge they had been capped at full level by England. Robson gave several players from the under-21s their chance at full level and also utilised the England ‘B’ squad as a means of assessing the talent available.

A different era
1988 was a very different era to today’s football world, with Luton Town and Wimbledon having just won the two main domestic cups. Chelsea and Manchester City would be spending 1988-89 in the Second Division (when that term still meant the second tier). International football tournaments and qualifying campaigns operated on a two points for a win basis and this was still the era of the old Czechoslovakia, USSR and Yugoslavia taking to the field. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the 1990 World Cup would be the final tournament East Germany and West Germany both competed in. Hopes of the ban on English clubs competing in Europe had been ended by further hooliganism in recent months, including at the European Championship. It was genuinely feared the national team could be next to pay the price for the ‘English disease’ and be given a ban from major tournaments if there was further serious disorder.

But domestically there were also moves into the modern footballing world. The summer saw some big money transfers, including Gascoigne’s £2.2 million switch from Newcastle United to Tottenham Hotspur. ITV splashed out to secure exclusive coverage of the Football League. Their deal would have particular emphasis on the ‘Big Five’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs) and the First Division title race. The BBC countered, striking a deal for exclusive terrestrial rights of the FA Cup and England matches. England fans would be hearing a lot from Jimmy Hill in the coming years.

Out with the old, in with (some of) the new
England’s road to recovery would appropriately begin with a clash with fellow Euro ’88 flops Denmark in a friendly at Wembley in September, an unofficial decider for the wooden spoon winner of the tournament. Old campaigners like Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher were joined by three debutants. Gascoigne and Walker came off the bench, on a night when Rocastle also made his first appearance. Luton Town’s powerful striker Mick Harford won his second and final cap in attack as Robson tried to find an alternative big man to Hateley up front, while Stuart Pearce was now first choice left-back after previously being Sansom’s understudy. Neil Webb scored the winner in a low-key atmosphere, just 25,837 showing up.

Five weeks later came a more important test as Sweden visited Wembley in the opening World Cup qualifier. It proved to be a night of frustration as England were unable to break down their opponents, for whom defender Glenn Hysen ran the show. Gary Lineker (who was hospitalised with hepatitis shortly after the Euro finals) seemed to lack the sharpness and precision that had previously made him so deadly. The goalless draw was not a good start for Robson, who now faced a long five-month wait before the next qualifier.

Getting results but not much praise
Things would get worse before 1988 was out, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia attracting the infamous ‘In the name of Allah, Go!’ headline. Robson wouldn’t be leaving and would justifiably point out how the Saudis had managed draws with several other established football nations, but that would not wash with many critics.  The match saw Robson experiment and recognise Arsenal’s strong start to the season with first caps for Michael Thomas, Alan Smith and Brian Marwood along with David Seaman (QPR) and Mel Sterland (Sheffield Wednesday). It was clear Robson was feeling the strain and was increasingly on the defensive with most members of the media, telling BBC commentator Barry Davies he was “impertinent” the following day over his line of questioning in his post-match interview.

The press vultures seemed to be growing in number as England began 1989 with an away friendly in Greece, but mercifully Robson’s side came from behind to win 2-1 and keep their unbeaten run going. Come March, the World Cup campaign resumed with a trip into the unknown as England travelled to Albania. It wasn’t a stirring performance and England could have fallen behind, but the watching audience back home on a Wednesday afternoon could at least enjoy a 2-0 win thanks to goals from John Barnes and Bryan Robson (who shrugged off a stomach bug to play and inspire his country to victory). Lineker’s ongoing poor form prompted concern, Jimmy Hill in the London studio calling for him to be dropped for the next match.

Football pays its respects
That match would be the return at Wembley against Albania late the following month. Initially the fixture had been overshadowed by a row over the scheduling over the crunch Liverpool against Arsenal clash for TV purposes, being due to be played just three days beforehand on the Sunday afternoon much to Bobby Robson’s annoyance. But this dispute was totally put into perspective by the horrific events at Hillsborough on April 15th, which sent football into mourning. The Liverpool against Arsenal match was understandably postponed. John Barnes withdrew from the squad, but Liverpool team-mate Peter Beardsley would play.

Wembley fell silent before kick-off 11 days on from the tragedy as English football paid its respects, with the team then turning in a committed display to win 5-0 and boost their goal difference and qualification hopes. Lineker kept his place and scored his first England goal for 10 months and the night was capped by Gascoigne coming off the bench to round off the scoring with his first international goal. Not that Robson was totally satisfied with the young talent, deciding to bring him down a peg as he told Sportsnight interviewer Tony Gubba that Gascoigne had “played in every position of the pitch except the position I told him to play in”.

A chance to experiment in attack
Before the summer break, England still had four matches to play. The Hillsborough disaster meant there was a prolonged end to the league season and limited England’s squad for the Rous Cup, with Liverpool and Arsenal players all absent. The three-cornered tournament was on its last legs, with Chile as the ‘other’ side struggling to capture the public imagination in England and Scotland. Not helped by a tube strike, a record low Wembley crowd for England of 15,628 witnessed a 0-0 draw that saw Wimbledon’s John Fashanu and Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Clough win their debuts in a new-look attack. The selection of the bustling Fashanu was not universally approved and his international career would last for just two matches.

Four days later (the night after Robson had been at Anfield to witness Arsenal dramatically clinch the league title) what turned out to be the last annual Scotland against England fixture brought a 2-0 win for Robson’s men at Hampden Park, with arguably the manager’s biggest selection gamble of his England reign paying off. The powerful Steve Bull was still technically a Third Division player with Wolves, for whom he had been scoring goals for fun for the past couple of years. That potency and confidence in front of goal was on show here as he came off the bench to seal a 2-0 win, ensuring he would stay in the fray.

On June 3rd, England took a big step towards the World Cup finals by beating Poland 3-0 at Wembley. For all the talk in the build-up of the Poles’ infamous last visit in 1973 when they qualified at England’s expense, this was a comfortable win for Robson’s men as Lineker found the net before Barnes and Webb wrapped things up. After four games England led the table by two points from Sweden, who had played a game less, with Poland being cut adrift. There was still work to be done to qualify, but Robson and his players could for once walk off Wembley to genuine cheers. The season ended with a 1-1 draw away to Denmark, Lineker again scoring on a night when Peter Shilton became England’s most capped player. Although it had not been a season when England met world class opposition, the statistics would show it was their first unbeaten campaign since 1974-75.

Sweating blood for the England cause
England’s World Cup qualifying programme resumed in early September 1989. For many years the Three Lions had been hit by ‘Septemberitis’, often suffering bad results in their first international of the season. It was not an ideal time to be facing a crucial qualifier away to Sweden. A draw would edge England towards the finals, although they would not be certain of wrapping up their place there. Reports of trouble involving English followers did not lift the mood as the side prepared for a vital clash. It was a night mainly remembered for injuries: captain Bryan Robson sat it out and watched from the BBC studio with Des Lynam, Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables; Neil Webb was carried off just weeks after joining Manchester United; and most famously of all, Terry Butcher refused to let the fact he split his head open and was covered in blood put him off, as he played on as his white England shirt became increasingly red. It was another 0-0 draw, with England not sparkling but not letting themselves down either. Lineker (now back playing in England with Spurs) again spurned chances and Waddle fired wide after appearing to have done the hard work with a jinking run towards goal.

“I felt we were the better side and it was a disappointment, in the circumstances, that we did not do better,” – Bobby Robson after the 0-0 draw in Sweden.

The draw meant England still had to get something in Poland a month later to be sure of going through. A win would ensure they topped the group, a draw would take them through as one of the best second place sides. It was a big game, with an international break the weekend before the match seeing Saint & Greavsie come live from the England team hotel. Poland’s hopes of making the finals were slim. They would have to win all three remaining games and overturn a fairly substantial goal difference to finish ahead of England.

By the width of the crossbar…
It was a far from vintage display from Robson’s men and they were pretty fortunate to get the draw they needed to make it through to Italy. Shilton gave a vintage display to keep the Poles out and lay the ghost of 16 years earlier to rest, but England rarely threatened and seemed ultra-cautious at times in the hostile Katowice atmosphere. Two years earlier in Yugoslavia they had gone at their hosts early in similar circumstances to wrap up qualification when a draw would have done it; this time around they seemed to let the need for a point dominate their thoughts. Perhaps the failings of Euro ’88 still preyed on their mind. In the dying seconds Shilton was finally beaten from 30 yards out by Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the relief being palpable as the ball struck the bar and bounced away to safety. Moments later the final whistle sounded and England were there, relief rather than joy being the main emotion. But they had qualified without conceding a goal and had not lost a qualifying match for a major tournament since September 1983.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear just how close England came to not making the finals. Had they conceded that last-gasp goal to Poland, they would have been reliant on any of three results going in their favour and none did. They saw Sweden leapfrog them to top spot in their group by winning in Poland, while Denmark’s defeat to Romania and West Germany’s win over Wales would have seen England finish as the poorest of the second-place teams by virtue of having scored less goals than Denmark. As it was, they finished a point ahead of them and the Danes – so stylish at the 1986 finals – had missed out.

England could start planning for Italy and did so with a friendly against the Italians at Wembley in November. The game once more ended 0-0 but was perhaps most significant for another new face, David Platt, making his international debut en route to being a key man for England the following summer. New caps were also handed out to Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn and Mike Phelan. Gascoigne had still yet to fully establish himself, playing in the B international against the Italians at Brighton instead.

Before the year was out England would ominously be placed in a World Cup group with European Championship opponents Netherlands and Republic of Ireland, along with Egypt. Preparations were gathering place the finals and a rare December friendly at home to Yugoslavia brought the curtain down on the 1980s, with Tony Dorigo becoming the 17th new cap since the summer of 1988. In a decade when the Robsons symbolised the England set-up, it was perhaps appropriate it would be captain Bryan who scored twice (including a first minute effort) to give England a 2-1 victory.

England would go into the new decade off the back of a 14 match unbeaten run, having qualified for the World Cup finals and started to lay the Euro ’88 mishaps to rest. A momentous and memorable year was in store, but that’s another story…

Six of the Best – England matches under Bobby Robson

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To mark the anniversary of the death of Sir Bobby Robson in 2009, let’s look back at six of the best games of his reign as England manager. It was a spell in charge that would not always go smoothly, as he found himself in the line of fire from the tabloids at times, but would end with Robson leaving as a hero after Italia ’90 and being much-loved in the later years of his life. A true legend of English football who will never be forgotten.

  

June 10th, 1984 – Brazil (a) 2-0 (Friendly)
It may only have been a friendly, but 30 years later this remains one of the most talked about games of the Bobby Robson era. The result in itself was momentous as England had only beaten Brazil once before, but it was particularly joyful for an under-pressure Robson. A week earlier England had been booed off after a home defeat by the USSR, following on from their failure to qualify for the European Championship and a poor showing in the last Home International Championship. While Brazil looked a pale shadow of the side that had won so many admirers at the 1982 World Cup, it was still a win to treasure for England in the Maracana and will forever be remembered for the incredible John Barnes goal shortly before the break (missed by England fans back home as ITV’s coverage only began at half-time). A Mark Hateley header wrapped things up in the second half. The pressure on Robson had eased and good results would now follow.

 

November 14th 1984 – Turkey (a) 8-0 (World Cup qualifier)
Fast forward five months and England had renewed confidence, having beaten Finland 5-0 in their opening World Cup qualifier in October 1984. They were expected to get a result against Turkey in Istanbul, with the Turks not regarded as one of the stronger European nations of the time. However, few were anticipating England to be so quite dominant and subdue the fervent home crowd with such an emphatic display. England in the 1980s were inspired by the two Robsons, with Bobby being manager and namesake Bryan his captain and on-field general. The skipper netted a hat-trick, with Tony Woodcock (2), John Barnes (2) and Viv Anderson also finding their way onto the scoresheet.

In typical football manager fashion, the older Robson was not totally satisfied. “I never thought I would ever win an international match 8-0 and think we’d let them off the hook because really we could have gone into double figures,” he told ITV’s Brian Moore afterwards, reflecting on missed chances. But there was a new-found confidence from England and they qualified with an unbeaten record for the finals. Other notable thrashings dished out by England under Robson included a 9-0 win over Luxembourg (December 1982) and another 8-0 win over Turkey (October 1987), both coming in European Championship qualifiers at Wembley.

 

June 11th, 1986 – Poland (n) 3-0 (World Cup Group F)
Almost exactly two years after the Brazil game, the pressure was again on Bobby Robson as England went into their final World Cup group game in Mexico in June 1986. They were in serious danger of an immediate exit after losing to Portugal and drawing with Morocco. A defeat would ensure elimination and a draw could also see them on the next plane home, with Robson’s job at serious risk if they failed to get the required result. Without the injured Bryan Robson and suspended Ray Wilkins, the manager reshuffled his midfield pack and brought Peter Beardsley in for Mark Hateley in attack. The changes paid off as Gary Lineker famously scored a first half hat-trick and went on to win the World Cup Golden Boot. The relief was visible for the manager, as England saw out the match and repeated the scoreline in the second round against Paraguay. Another 3-0 over Poland in a World Cup qualifier in June 1989 was one of the Wembley highlights of the Robson years.

 

February 18th, 1987 – Spain (a) 4-2 (Friendly)
There was a time in the mid to late 1980s that, if they clicked, England looked as dangerous going forward as any side in the world. It didn’t always work out but if Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson et al were on top of their game then few defences would find it easy to live with them. This was one of those games when the forward line was on-form, making it a happy 54th birthday for Bobby Robson. Lineker had moved to Barcelona after the 1986 World Cup and his stock was to rise in Spain as he tore the home side apart in Madrid. England recovered from being 1-0 down to lead 4-1, as Lineker scored all of them past Barcelona team-mate Andoni Zubizarreta. Robson’s side could even afford to concede a second goal before the end and still win comfortably against a fellow World Cup quarter-finalist. Another friendly win worth remembering came away to Soviet Union in March 1986, the 1-0 success inflicting a rare home defeat on the USSR.

 

November 11th, 1987 – Yugoslavia (a) 4-1 (European Championship qualifier)
Another example of England looking unstoppable, with the goals flying in against decent opposition. Played in foul weather in Belgrade, England could have been forgiven for keeping it tight and settling for the draw they needed to qualify for the European Championship finals. But Bobby Robson’s side were brimming with confidence after beating Turkey 8-0 the previous month and they destroyed Yugoslavia in the opening 25 minutes. An early Peter Beardsley goal settled the nerves, with further efforts from John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams ensuring the game was settled long before half-time. Yugoslavia could only manage one goal after the break, as England deservedly clinched their place in the Euro finals. Sadly, it’s fair to say what happened there will not rate as a highlight of the Bobby Robson England reign and he once more became a target for the tabloids.

 

July 4th, 1990 – West Germany (n) 1-1 (World Cup semi-final – lost on penalties)
It ended in heartache, but this was the night that cemented Bobby Robson’s reputation as an England hero. He’d become the first England manager to guide England into the World Cup last four on foreign soil, Robson memorably dancing a jig of delight as David Platt scored a last-gasp winner against Belgium in the second round and then breathing a huge sigh of relief as his men edged out Cameroon in an enthralling quarter-final. But now came the major test, up against the World Cup favourites in Turin and needing to perform better than in the previous rounds if they were to stand a chance of winning. England gave what was widely considered to be their best performance at a major finals for years, genuinely having a go at their highly-rated hosts and winning over many critics.

You all know what ultimately happened, as it took a penalty-shoot-out to separate the sides on a night of high emotion and tears. England returned home with their pride intact and the departing Robson could bask in a level of public affection he had not always enjoyed in the previous eight years. A knighthood would eventually come his way. With every passing World Cup disappointment since then, England’s achievements in Italy grow more impressive and may not be matched for some time yet.

When England had a chance of third place…

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When Brazil crashed to their astonishing 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany on Tuesday, the last thing they probably wanted was to have to stick around for another four days for the formalities of a third-fourth place play-off. Judging from Louis van Gaal’s comments that it “should never be played”, it seems the Dutch aren’t enthralled about tonight’s contest either. But has it always been like this? In one World Cup, England found themselves in the play-off when they came up against hosts Italy in 1990…

There are two main problems with the ‘consolation match’. The first is both teams are heartbroken, having just missed out on a place in the final. The last thing anybody wants to be doing when the dream has gone is to have to wait several days for another match which has no influence over the destiny of who wins the tournament. The second issue is the prize for winning this match isn’t really big enough to motivate anybody. While third place sounds a bit better than fourth, there is no glory in it and it isn’t what any team strives for. One can see the significance of the Olympic bronze medal match, but the World Cup does not work like that. The European Championship copes without such a match and so do English and European club competitions. There was an odd flirtation with it in the FA Cup for a short time in the 1970s, but that was unsurprisingly binned off.

But despite its limited reputation, the play-off match rarely fails to provide entertainment. Since 1982, every World Cup third-place match bar one has contained more goals than the following day’s final (the exception was 1998, when both matches had three goals). It has often helped players towards the Golden Boot prize and allowed others on the fringes to be rewarded for their patience with a World Cup finals appearance, as well as usually being an open contest and providing a couple of historic moments. The brilliant curling goal by Nelinho for Brazil against Italy in 1978 was one, the competition’s fastest ever goal from Hakan Sukur for Turkey against South Korea in 2002 being another (I will always regret switching my TV on about a minute into this one and missing it when it happened).

The end of an era for England
For England, the third-place match in 1990 against Italy is often forgotten amid the more famous memories of their best World Cup on foreign soil. When any documentary tells the story of that English summer, it seems somewhat anti-climatic to go from recalling the drama of the match against West Germany to the limited significance of whether England were the best of the losing semi-finalists in Italy. But we shouldn’t forget that this match marked the end of an era for two men synonymous with the England set-up.

Bobby Robson went out to the World Cup knowing his eight-year reign as manager was about to end and with his reputation still having not totally recovered from the horrors of the 1988 European Championship. England rode their luck a bit along the way, but they had gone on to reach the last four and Robson’s popularity suddenly soared. They had played with passion and produced one of their best displays in years during the semi-final against West Germany. Although it had ended in a heartbreaking penalty-shoot-out loss, England’s reputation back home was the highest it had been for a long time. Robson was left filled with a mixture of pride and regret by England coming so close, I think most of us had. But he was determined to end with a good showing against Italy.

Also coming to an end would be the England career of Peter Shilton, after 125 caps. I seem to recall his international retirement wasn’t confirmed until after the game, but it was no surprise. It was the right time to go at the age of 40. While the third-place game has been known as a chance to give fringe players a runout, Robson’s loyalty to Shilton and private knowledge he was about to retire meant he was given his final cap rather than a runout for deputy Chris Woods. The tournament would also mark the end of Terry Butcher’s England career, although he would not play in the third-place match. Both Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle were absent from the starting line-up after missing penalties against the Germans and Paul Gascoigne was suspended, as Tony Dorigo, Steve McMahon, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens came into the side. Neil Webb would come off the bench, leaving Steve Hodge as the only England outfield player not to feature during the finals.

It was quite common in this era for the third-place match not to be shown live on British television, but in 1990 it was covered by both the BBC and ITV. This meant Barry Davies and Alan Parry would both enjoy commentating on a live England match at the World Cup far later than they might have expected, with John Motson and Brian Moore saving themselves for the final between Argentina and West Germany 24 hours later. There were some comparisons between Italy’s positions and that of Brazil now, as a World Cup host with strong football heritage who had fallen short of winning the World Cup relatively recently after doing so abroad. But Italy had, like England, suffered penalty-shoot-out heartache in the semi-final; this time around Brazil have been well and truly humiliated as hosts.

Outshining the World Cup Final
The match wasn’t a classic, but it was a reasonable, enjoyable contest between two sides wanting to end on a high. It certainly outdid the following night’s abysmal final in every positive way. The atmosphere may have been fairly low-key, but the Italians played with determination and tried several long-range shots in the first-half including a Roberto Baggio half-volley. Shilton dealt with them, appearing to justify Robson’s faith in him. At the other end Gary Lineker uncharacteristically fired in a shot from about 25 yards out as he sought to retain the Golden Boot he won in 1986.

All the goals came in the final 20 minutes. A harmless-looking backpass from McMahon saw Shilton caught in two minds between picking it up and clearing it. As he hesitated, Baggio dispossesed him and appeared to be fouled by the goalkeeper. The ref played on and Baggio capped a good tournament by putting Italy ahead. “Well that’s a terrible mistake by Peter Shilton,” said his former international team-mate Trevor Francis, co-commentating on ITV.

Summing up their battling tournament, England refused to throw in the towel and levelled as a tremendous Dorigo cross was met with a bullet header from David Platt. Bobby Robson was up off the bench and urging his players to go on and win it. But five minutes from time he was left disappointed as Toto Schillaci was adjudged to have been felled in the area by Paul Parker. “Oh no, oh no,” howled Davies in bemusement at the decision, as Robson waved his arms in disgust. Looking for his sixth goal of the tournament, Schillaci took the spot-kick and restored Italy’s lead.

England sign off from the 1990 World Cup

There was still time for an excellent looping header by Nicola Berti to be dubiously disallowed. But it didn’t affect the outcome, while the defeat wouldn’t impact on how England’s World Cup was remembered. At the final whistle, they joined their opponents for the presentation and performed the Mexico Wave together.

England were treated as heroes when they arrived back home the following day. As well as their first semi-final appearance in the World Cup overseas, they collected the Fair Play trophy. The European ban on English clubs was about to end. This was a good time to be an England fan. And nobody seemed bothered they’d lost the third-place match…

Gary’s path to Golden Glory – how Lineker finished top scorer in 1986 World Cup

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As Colombia’s James Rodriguez returned home from the 2014 World Cup with six goals to his name after the quarter-final stage and his value rocketing, one man could probably identify with him better than anyone else. Gary Lineker may have been a different type of player to Rodriguez (no stunning volleys from outside the area for him), but in 1986 he matched his goalscoring tally from the same number of matches and found himself in big demand after his first World Cup finals. So let’s look back at the summer that changed his life…

Lineker’s rise to prominence was pretty rapid. He made a relatively slow start to his football career and would not have been in anybody’s thoughts as England played the 1982 World Cup when he was 21 and a low-profile Second Division striker with hometown club Leicester City. But the goals started flowing in as promotion was achieved in 1982-83 and in May 1984 came the big moment when he was brought on for Tony Woodcock during England’s 1-1 draw away to Scotland.

He didn’t score and wouldn’t win another cap until March 1985, when his international career began to take off with a goal against the Republic of Ireland. He would net twice against the USA in June and then came the night that appeared to have confirmed his arrival on the international scene, a hat-trick in a 5-0 destruction of Turkey in October as England celebrated World Cup qualification. By that point he had made the switch to Everton and continued his prolific goalscoring form at club level as he netted 40 times in 1985-86.

But then the doubts set in. Lineker played in four more internationals before the World Cup and failed to score in any of them and a wrist injury sustained in the last warm-up match against Canada led to fears he would miss the finals. There would be three other strikers vying for a forward place in Bobby Robson’s line-up. There was the powerful duo of Mark Hateley and Kerry Dixon, who both could act as the proverbial handful for any defence to contend with. And there was the customary latecomer to the party, with Newcastle’s Peter Beardsley adding a touch of class to the attack after only making his international debut in January 1986. He’d linked up well with Lineker in a friendly against USSR in March, but then had clicked with Hateley in the penultimate pre-World Cup friendly.

Nearly over before it began
Lineker, with his wrist in plaster and having felt ill on the morning of the match, took his place in the side for England’s opening game in the World Cup against Portugal in Monterray and partnered Hateley in attack. Although Portugal had reached the semi-finals of Euro ’84, England were expected to beat them and they created enough chances to do so. On another occasion Lineker could have had a hat-trick with his three decent scoring chances, coming closest in the second half when his effort was cleared away by the final Portugese defender with the goalkeeper beaten. But his potency and luck was out and England were made to pay in the closing stages as Carlos Manuel grabbed a winner. Things got worse in the second match against Morocco, Lineker fairly anonymous in a goalless draw forever remembered for Bryan Robson’s World Cup ending through injury and Ray Wilkins being sent-off after throwing the ball in the direction of the referee.

The pressure was now on Bobby Robson and it looked certain he would act and make changes. Although there was a chance England could progress with a draw against group seeds Poland, for the matter to be in their own hands they had to win. If they lost they would definitely be out, a humiliating failure in one of the weakest of the six groups. Bobby Robson was left to make tough calls for how to find the goalscoring answer. He could quite easily have dropped Lineker. Instead Hateley was the unlucky man to miss out, with Beardsley brought in. It was a move that helped save England’s World Cup and Bobby Robson’s reputation, along with bringing in understated players like Steve Hodge and Peter Reid who did excellent jobs.

A life-changing moment (or three)
“It was the game that changed my life,” Lineker has said in numerous interviews over the years. It’s hard to argue with that. While he had been absolutely prolific in recent seasons at club level, English football has been littered with strikers who have scored goals for fun in the top-flight but could not find the finishing touch when they pulled on the England shirt (Clive Allen, Andrew Cole and Kevin Phillips to name but three). At this point he was barely known outside of England, having not appeared in a major tournament or in a European club competition. By half-time he’d be talked about globally as his predatory instincts transformed the contest, to the delight of the millions staying up late back home to watch the 11pm kick-off.

England started nervously and were twice almost punished for their slackness, but after nine minutes came the moment that changed the tournament. A good move involving Beardsley, Lineker, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens (his Everton team-mate, there was also confusingly the Spurs player of the same name in the squad) ended with Lineker scoring from close range to the delight of every Englishman, epitomised by Jimmy Hill’s cheering being heard on the BBC commentary as he sat alongside Barry Davies. The second goal quickly followed, Beardsley playing a delightful ball to Hodge whose perfect cross was sweetly finished by Lineker. Hodge had a goal disallowed before England wrapped victory up before the break. The Polish goalkeeper failed to handle a corner and Lineker showed his poaching instinct to pounce from typically close range. The second half was after the Lord Mayor’s show as England saw the game out with a 3-0 win and through in second place, having also helped to finally dim the memory of that infamous night at Wembley against the Poles in October 1973.

Suddenly Lineker was big news. Film crews converged on the family’s fruit and veg market stall back in Leicester and attention would be given to how, showing a typically superstitious outlook for a footballer, he sought his damaged boots to be repaired rather than replaced now he was on a scoring run.

The game that changed Lineker’s life.

More of the same
Considering they had only finished second in their group, fortune was on their side in terms of the second round draw. England had a week to recover before they played in Mexico City against Paraguay, not regarded as a strong side. Had England finished first in the group it would have been West Germany they would face; if they had gone through in third, they would have been up against Brazil. They would also have a chance to get used to playing at the Azteca Stadium before potentially playing there again against Argentina in the quarter-finals.

England looked far more confident than in the group stage, although again they could have been punished at 0-0. But they were to carry on where they left off as Lineker netted his fourth of the tournament, sticking out a leg to turn the ball into an empty net from Steve Hodge’s assist. The Paraguayans were not afraid to compete physically and Lineker was floored by a flying elbow into the throat in the second half. While off the field being treated, Beardsley scored a Lineker-esque close-range goal from inside the six yard box following the corner. Lineker returned to the action and wrapped up the win from just outside the six yard box, after excellent approach play by Hoddle and Gary Stevens (the Spurs one this time).

Lineker, goalless two games earlier, was now the World Cup’s top scorer with five goals. “It’s a great honour to be ahead of some of the names who are in the competition. I just hope I can stay there and hopefully we get to the final and even bring the cup home,” he told the BBC, while praising the team as a whole for their part in the goals he scored. The team-spirit seemed strong and confidence was flowing.

Lineker nets twice in the win over Paraguay.

Moving onto six, but so nearly seven
And so to quarter-final Sunday, a showdown with Argentina that would be talked about for years. We all know what happened with Argentina running out 2-1 winners, but perhaps an interesting subplot concerned the destiny of the Golden Boot. Maradona of course scored twice, Lineker once. His late header from John Barnes’ excellent cross gave him six goals, the same as had finished top scorer in the past two World Cups. An action replay looked certain minutes later as England rallied and Barnes sparkled, Lineker somehow having the ball somehow cleared away from him as he prepared to level from close range (ITV commentator Martin Tyler screamed “goal”, such was the assumption Lineker would score). He would have to be content with six goals for the tournament and, more importantly, just a place in the last eight in the World Cup. It also became clear how in demand Lineker was, with stories emerging of Barcelona being willing to spend big to sign him. With English clubs banned from Europe, a move overseas seemed inevitable.

It was now out of Lineker’s hands if he could claim the Golden Boot, with the four surviving teams all having two games left to bang the goals in. But one consolation was Brazil (Careca) and Spain (Emilio Butragueno) also went out in the quarter-finals, meaning the two players on five goals would not be able to overtake him. Realistically the main threat to the Golden Boot would come from Argentina. Maradona had scored three and was coming into form. He underlined that three days later with two goals in the semi-final against Belgium, including another great solo goal. He now stood on five goals.

Lineker’s sixth and final World Cup goal in 1986.

Winning the award while in the hallowed studio
Lineker, back home in England, was getting an early insight into life presenting on the BBC as he was a pundit for the final alongside Lawrie McMenemy and Terry Venables, with Des Lynam presenting. Lynam would get a telling-off from McMenemy for raising the subject of Lineker possibly moving to Barcelona without Everton manager Howard Kendall being present. Lineker was giving nothing away, although his suggestion he would simply “play for the team I want to play for next season” was hardly a reassurance to Evertonians he was staying at Goodison Park.

Lineker could only watch and wonder if his name could join such names as Kempes, Eusebio, Rossi and Fontaine as Golden Boot winner. Maradona had been so influential for Argentina that it seemed inconceivable he wouldn’t score. But this was to be one of his quieter games and it was his turn to turn provider rather goalscorer, in managing to tee up Burruchaga for the late winner as Argentina triumphed 3-2. Maradona was the player of the tournament, but not the top scorer.

Watch the moment Gary discovered the World Cup Golden Boot would be his…

As expected, Lineker headed off to Barcelona in a £2.8 million move. The next time he pulled on the England shirt, he scored twice against Northern Ireland in a European Championship qualifier, including a superb chipped goal. His stock was rising all the time and he must have fancied his chances of landing the Sports Personality of the Year award. But Lineker was surprisingly to not even make the top three, Nigel Mansell taking the prize despite missing out on the Formula One championship. Lineker must have looked on with a touch of envy when Paul Gascoigne (1990) and Michael Owen (1998) subsequently won the award off the back of World Cup performances.

But for Lineker, the World Cup Golden Boot would provide ample consolation. He still remains the only British player ever to win it. And later advertising deals with Walkers Crisps and the Match of the Day presenting gig have again softened the blow I’m sure…

Six of the Best – yet they didn’t even make the last four…

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As the excitement mounts ahead of the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the sides who had the world talking – but then it would all end prematurely before the semi-final stage, with the teams returning home with just the happy memories of their early good form to treasure…

Brazil 1982
For anyone who fell in love with football shortly after the 1970 World Cup, they would have to wait until 1982 to see a genuinely captivating Brazil team on the global stage. The names of Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and others are likely to have football fans of a certain age drooling at the memory. The goals flew in from all over the pitch as Brazil dominated their first round group and looked clear favourites to go all the way. But then they had the misfortune to be placed alongside Argentina and Italy in the second round group of three teams (probably the ultimate Group of Death at any World Cup, with only one side able to advance to the semi-finals).

Brazil beat their South American rivals, but then lost out in one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time against Italy. Italian forward Paolo Rossi suddenly rediscovered his goalscoring touch with a hat-trick to turn the competition on its head, as Italy won an epic encounter in which Brazil were exposed defensively. The Brazilians had scored 15 goals in just five matches, but they wouldn’t even be in the semi-finals – some would argue the magic of 1982 has never quite been matched by them since.

Denmark 1986
From nothing, Denmark emerged to be one of the most popular and stylish teams of the 1980s as they gained admirers well beyond Scandinavia. After reaching the semi-finals at Euro ’84 (qualifying at England’s expense), Denmark made their World Cup bow two years later. With players like Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer weaving their magic, the Danes emerged with a 100% record from the Group of Death (yes another one) including Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay (who they thrashed 6-1).

The Danes were now being talked about as potential winners and it came as little surprise when they led Spain 1-0 in the second round. Suddenly, a misplaced backpass from Jesper Olsen allowed Spain back into the game and a second half collapse ended with the Danes thrashed 5-1 and crashing out in the last 16. They had promised and deserved much more. They wouldn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups, but for a couple of weeks in 1986 they had looked as good as any side in the world.

Argentina 2006
It seems much of Argentina’s luck was used up in struggling through to the final in 1990, as they haven’t been beyond the last eight since then despite having several highly-rated sides. The tournament that stands out is 2006. During the first round Argentina produced one of the great World Cup performances in modern times to thrash Serbia and Montenegro 6-0, scoring a truly outstanding team goal as they took possession football to new heights. “I think we’ve just seen the World Cup winners,” was the sort of comment I saw widely being posted on messageboards afterwards, but the tournament can be a cruel mistress. A stunning extra-time winner from Maxi Rodriguez was needed to dispose of Mexico in the second round, but then came the toughest test yet as hosts Germany lay in wait in the quarter-finals. The Germans equalised late in normal time and triumphed in a penalty shoot-out, also knocking Argentina out in the last eight in 2010.

Cameroon 1990
For many youngsters of the time like me watching the World Cup in 1990, Cameroon will always have a special place in our hearts. Widely dismissed as African outsiders before the start of the competition, their raw, cavalier approach won hearts as more established football nations struggled to deal with them. Their disciplinary record wasn’t the best and they had two men sent off in the tournament opener against holders Argentina, but they sensationally won 1-0. 38-year-old ‘supersub’ Roger Milla was the hero in wins against Romania and Colombia, leading to his corner flag ‘wiggle’ celebration being mimicked the world over.

In the quarter-finals they were paired with England (not ideal for those of us who loved both). It was a momentous night, the only game in the tournament in which both teams scored at least twice. The match was a see-saw contest which Cameroon probably should have won as they outplayed England for much of the second half to lead 2-1 late on. But their defensive weaknesses resurfaced and led to them conceding a late penalty for Lineker to equalise and save England, with history repeating itself in extra-time as he netted the winner from the spot and Bobby Robson’s side won 3-2. “We’ve all aged 10 years,” said presenter Bob Wilson as he signed off the BBC’s live coverage, correctly summing up the exhausting nature of the night. Four years later we watched the World Cup in USA hoping for more magic from Cameroon, but it never came and they have not gone beyond the group stages again – this year produced a particularly underwhelming effort that did them no credit at all.

North Korea 1966
It’s perhaps easy to forget North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966 lasted just four games, losing two and needing a late equaliser to avoid defeat in another. And yet the diminutive Asians wrote their name into World Cup folklore in the tournament. Their 1-0 group stage win over Italy is regarded as one of the greatest World Cup giantkillings and ensured Pak Doo-Ik’s name would forever be well-known. They were now just three matches away from being World Cup winners!

Interest now grew beyond Middlesbrough where they were based for the group stage and had been adopted as the team to cheer on. The North Koreans headed to face Portugal in the quarter-finals at Goodison Park (joined by about 3,000 newly-acquired fans travelling down from Middlesbrough, preferring to do that than watch England’s quarter-final at the same time). In a thrilling match, North Korea led 3-0 after 24 minutes, before falling victim to a one-man goalscoring exhibition. The brilliant Eusebio scored four times (including twice from the penalty spot as the North Koreans lost their defensive discipline) to turn the game around by the hour mark, with Portugal eventually running out 5-3 winners. The dream had died and North Korea would disappear back into communist secrecy until qualifying again in 2010 – but their exploits in 1966 will never be forgotten in England.

An excellent documentary about North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966.

Romania 1994
When they clicked, they were brilliant. When they didn’t, they got punished. Romania, boasting such talents as Gheorghe Hagi and Ille Dumitrescu, were technically impressive and laid down a marker in their opening match against highly-fancied Colombia. Hagi scored a speculative goal from out wide in a 3-1 win. There was a reality check in the next match against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland, as Romania lost 4-1. But a win against hosts USA took Romania through as group winners to a last 16 tie with Argentina, who had been rocked by Diego Maradona’s positive drugs test a few days earlier. The sides served up a classic, Romania playing some excellent stuff and Hagi’s creativity helping them go 2-0 up early on through a Dumitrescu double. Hagi would find the net himself in the second half as Romania held out to win 3-2 and send the 1986 winners and 1990 runners-up home.

Romania were now fancied to beat Sweden in the quarter-finals but they would show some hint of inconsistency as went out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. To rub salt into the wounds, neighbours Bulgaria surprisingly went through to the semi-finals by beating Germany so Romania could not even lay claim to being the last Eastern European side left in. But it had been good while it lasted.

And as for England?
Considering England’s high amount of past quarter-final exits, it would seem amiss not to mention at least one of them here. While perhaps not having the world on the edge of their seats, the one that stands out most is 1970. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side boasted arguably a better team than the one that won on home soil four years earlier and have never been so well fancied on foreign soil, being considered as potentially the biggest threat to favourites Brazil. The sides played out an iconic group stage match in which England could lay claim to one of the best saves (Gordon Banks), best tackles (Bobby Moore) and worst misses (Jeff Astle) in World Cup history. England lost 1-0 but looked good enough to go all the way to the final for a re-match with Brazil. Certainly when they held a 2-0 lead in the quarter-final against West Germany that looked odds-on to get there. Inexplicably, England threw victory away to crash out of the tournament. It would be a long 12-year wait until they even qualified for another finals.

 

Six of the Worst – Home Disadvantage

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A rare World Cup rest day is here and as anticipation mounts for Brazil’s last 16 clash with Chile on Saturday, it seems worth recalling that a nation being World Cup hosts in the past has not always been the recipe for guaranteed glory. While in England we can look back particularly fondly at 1966 as being both hosts and winners, for different reasons things have not gone totally to plan for others looking to triumph while staging the competition.

So here’s six past World Cup hosts who perhaps look back today and think they could have achieved something more on the field on home soil…

Spain 1982
Probably the least controversial entry on the list. A case of a proud football nation being handed the tournament at the wrong time as they lacked in quality players and the results showed this (although given how the 2014 World Cup has gone they probably would consider their 1982 showing to be ok!). Three of the four most recent World Cup hosts had triumphed, but Spain were to not come close to doing so. The Spaniards won just one match out of five, averaging less than a goal per game and being the only host nation (apart from those playing in third place play-offs) to play a World Cup match knowing they were already out of the competition. They needed a couple of penalty decisions to go in their favour in the first group phase as they staggered through behind Northern Ireland and only ahead of Yugoslavia on goals scored, having failed to beat Honduras in their opening game.

The second group stage saw them lose to West Germany, meaning their final group game against England was academic for them. Surprisingly, Spain recovered to perform better on foreign soil and reach the final of Euro ’84 and the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup. If only the likes of Emilio Butragueno had emerged sooner…

Brazil 1950
Being runners-up should hardly be considered a failure compared to how many hosts have done, but for Brazil the horror of letting the World Cup slip in 1950 still haunts the country despite all their subsequent success. The first post-war World Cup seemed destined to be won by the football-mad host nation. Uniquely, the last four sides left in the competition would play in a group round-robin format to decide the winner with no final. Brazil thrashed Sweden and Spain and needed just a draw against Uruguay in the unofficial final. In front of more than 200,000 at the Maracana, Brazil led in the second half before infamously conceding twice as Uruguay celebrated an unexpected second World Cup triumph. For all the doubts over how good Brazil are in 2014, they will lift go some way to lifting the burden of 1950 if they can succeed.

Italy 1990
In some respects a dubious entry, as on paper Italy had plenty to be proud of in Italia ‘90. They were unbeaten in open play in seven matches and conceded just two goals, boasting the tournament’s top scorer in Toto Schillaci and scoring arguably the goal of the competition through Roberto Baggio against Czechoslovakia. But no country has hosted the World Cup so recently after winning it as Italy did just eight years on from their 1982 triumph, and with a rebuilt side there was expectation on them to at least make the final. They uncharacteristically made a strong start by winning all their group games, but made heavy weather of them. They then had a relatively straightforward route to the semi-finals in beating Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland, earning them a tie with Argentina at Diego Maradona’s spiritual home of Naples.

Italy let the lead slip against an underwhelming Argentine side and failed to keep their nerve in the penalty shoot-out. Finishing third by beating England was little consolation. Some argument could be put forward for Germany making this list by virtue of a third place finish in 2006 (given their previous triumphs), but there was a sense of renaissance about them as they played a more entertaining brand of football than traditionally had been the case and knocked out favourites Argentina in the quarter-finals.

Japan 2002
Although in many ways Japan did very well in 2002, reaching the last 16 in only their second World Cup finals and topping a group including Belgium and Russia, they were to pay the price for being co-hosts as comparisons would always be drawn with the on-field success of the other host nation of South Korea. In the second round Japan suffered a slightly anti-climatic defeat to Turkey, but then hours later South Korea would momentously beat Italy and go on to knock out Spain in the quarter-finals. Japan could only watch on and wonder how far they too could have gone with a bit more good fortune.

South Africa 2010
Realistically a limited South Africa side were never likely to achieve much as the host nation in 2010, but they did stand a chance of getting out a group containing a troubled France, Mexico and Uruguay (the same three group stage opponents as England faced in 1966). However, they drew the tournament opener with Mexico and then crashed 3-0 to Uruguay. Pride was restored with a 2-1 win over France in their final game, in which for a time they looked like they might be able to overhaul Mexico for second spot on goal difference. But ultimately they became the first host nation to fail to get out of the group stage. The vuvuzelas were silenced and Africa was left to unite behind Ghana for the knockout stages.

Mexico 1986
Not so much a failure as a missed opportunity. There was a fairly familiar pattern to the two World Cups hosted by Mexico, as in both 1970 and 1986 they reached the quarter-finals before bowing out. In 1970 it was seen as an achievement to get to the last eight after limited past success, but come 1986 there was an expectancy of a good run with players of the quality of Hugo Sanchez and the side having the luxury of spending a long time together to prepare for the finals. They were handed a weak group including Belgium, Paraguay and Iraq, before having possibly the simplest second round tie possible against Bulgaria. Manuel Negrete’s stunning goal in that match at least ensured there would be a lasting memory of the hosts at their own party.

In the quarter-finals they faced an uninspiring West German side, who had struggled past Morocco in the previous round. A tedious contest ended goalless, with the Germans typically efficient from the spot to triumph. Mexico have never gone so far in the World Cup since then, becoming perennial last 16 losers. An impressive Dutch side stand in their way this time around…

England banished into the shadows – June 25th, 1982

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England’s final group game yesterday was, very unusually, low on headlines and almost totally devoid of the usual hype. A forgettable, if somewhat predictable, 0-0 dead rubber draw with Costa Rica was not even the main football talking point at the moment the game finished, as the antics of a certain Mr Suarez dominated ITV’s post-match debate. Throw in the evening drama of Greece beating the Ivory Coast with a last-gasp penalty to go through and Colombia’s glittering performance against Japan and it has to be said England were very much last on the global footballing agenda. Even their arrival back in the UK today after failing in Brazil has not received the usual publicity given to the team coming home.

This was the first time England have ever played a group game when already out of the tournament, but it wasn’t the only occasion when they failed to hog the British headlines on a day they played in the World Cup. For proof of that we can look back exactly 32 years to June 25th, 1982. A day when there were three matches all ending in 1-0 scorelines – a famous shock win for a British side; one of the most controversial matches in World Cup history; and by far the least memorable, England winning a dead rubber.

A strange tournament
The 1982 World Cup was a strange experience for England. They had made extremely heavy weather of qualifying for their first finals since 1970 and then their presence in the finals was thrown into doubt as the Falklands War broke out. They played in the first 24-team finals and – despite missing the last two World Cups – England were seeded in the draw (a controversial move at the time). They made an incredible start by scoring through Bryan Robson in under 30 seconds of their opening match against a highly-rated French side. But England’s 3-1 win was to be the highlight of their finals, as the goals dried up and Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking desperately fought to be fit to be even bit-part players in the World Cup (they had never played in the finals and would never get another chance). Throw in an odd second round format of four groups of three teams with just one progressing and England going out without losing, and it was a very different World Cup to normal for the English fan. And sadly, not perhaps the most memorable either.

Ron Greenwood’s men qualified from their first round group with a routine 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia in their second group game. Their third game against Kuwait would be played on Friday, June 25th in Bilbao. England had already won the group and Kuwait were out unless they could win by a cricket score, effectively making it meaningless. England didn’t change things too much (the decision to keep Peter Shilton in goal virtually ended any hope Ray Clemence had of playing a World Cup match) but Steve Foster, Phil Neal and Glenn Hoddle were brought into the starting line-up. It proved a fairly forgettable contest in the afternoon sunshine, settled in England’s favour thanks to a Trevor Francis first half goal as they enjoyed a rare 100% group record.

Highlights of England’s 1-0 win over Kuwait. Well done anyone who can recall anything other than the goal from this game.

An inevitable outcome
The real drama, or total lack of it, was taking place at the same time as England’s match. In another oddity of the World Cup, West Germany’s three group matches were all played at the same time as England’s despite the teams being in different groups (it was common until Italia ’90 for group games that had no bearing on each other to be played at the same time). This made it more strange that FIFA still did not consider it appropriate for the final round of games in each game to be played simultaneously to limit the threat of possible collusion, particularly after the controversy of Argentina’s decisive 6-0 win over Peru in 1978 being played in isolation. West Germany had famously lost 2-1 to Algeria in their opening match in Spain, with subsequent results meaning it would come down to the final game in the group against neighbours Austria in Gijon. Algeria had won 3-2 against Chile the previous day and they would go through if the Germans failed to win or if Austria were beaten by three goals or more.

The passage of time means some British fans seem to recall sitting through the 90 minutes of West Germany against Austria and being disgusted at what they saw. The reality is no one, apart from presumably the odd person in a TV studio, would have watched it in full unless they were abroad at the time. ITV was probably one of the few channels in the world to screen England’s meaningless match live and the BBC did not show an afternoon match. But viewers would soon discover just what had taken place. As is well known, the West Germans scored early and the game quickly fizzled out to a lifeless 1-0 result that suited both sides as suspicions grew around the world. Algeria were left particularly disgusted, but so too were many others. Anschluss was one memorable headline used to describe the events. Perhaps the most disappointing element was that Austria seemed to abandon any attempt to repeat their great victory over West Germany at the previous World Cup finals, which they had widely celebrated despite already being out of the tournament.

BBC viewers tuning in for the live Spain against Northern Ireland match that evening were to see the controversy already developing. “It has to be said the match had all the makings of a carve-up and that’s the way it turned out,” said a clearly unimpressed David Coleman when introducing brief footage of the match, which incidentally meant West Germany would be in the same second phase group as England (whose own highlights on the BBC were extremely brief, summing up the meaningless nature of their match).

BBC commentator Alan Parry summed it up when he said: “It is difficult to prove that 22 footballers weren’t trying, or that these two countries might have got together and decided that a 1-0 scoreline was in their best interest for both of them but that it certainly the way it looked and it is difficult to imagine that FIFA won’t do something to stamp out the memory of an afternoon that was an insult to the crowd and an embarrassment to football.”

Bingham’s Glory

  
FIFA would rightly change the format from 1986 to as we know it today with the final matches in each group played simultaneously, but that was four years too late for Algeria. Some faith quickly needed to be restored in the tournament and for British viewers that would come in the evening match. On a momentous night, Northern Ireland famously won 1-0 against hosts Spain thanks to a Gerry Armstrong goal. Billy Bingham’s side courageously held out despite being reduced to 10 men when Mal Donaghy was controversially sent off. Another goal for the Irish would have put Spain out, but there was no suggestion of any underhand arrangement here as Bingham’s men gave one of the most gutsy performances by a UK side at any World Cup. Spain had been poor in the group stage and things would not improve in the second round as they took just one point from their matches against West Germany and England, the latter falling at the same hurdle after two 0-0 draws.

By then how England did was back as the main concern for the British sporting media. But for one game in this World Cup they had been last on the agenda, a day when UK pride was reserved for Northern Ireland defying the odds and when all the controversy was in the one match containing no direct British interest. We’ve had to wait a long time for an England World Cup match to be so insignificant again. And it somehow doesn’t feel right when it happens, does it?