In the first of a new occasional series, Ed Carter looks fondly back at his first World Cup finals match.
It was Friday 8th June 1990. I was ten years old and I’d never seen a World Cup Finals match before.
I came to football relatively late, or at least it felt that way at the time. No-one in my family had any particular interest in the game or strong affliations to anyone in it. And beyond my mother’s understandable worship of The Championships, Wimbledon and inexplicable passion for ice dancing at the Winter Olympics, neither of my parents ever watched, talked or thought about any sport at all. My only knowledge of soccer came from watching my schoolmates playing it at breaktime in my peripheral vision.
But it was about autumn 1988 and what happened is that I suspect my dad was going through one of his occasional crises of masculinity. These normally run along the lines of worrying that having no interest in or knowledge of the national game surely marks him down as a nancy boy amongst his peer group. So along with my little brother, a football-mad member of Dad’s church choir and his friend (a particularly foul-mouthed traffic warden), we decamped to the Goldstone Ground in Hove. What we saw created a lifelong interest in football in two of us. My dad remained unmoved, but to this day we’ll still get an occasional family outing thanks to another disturbance in his gender identity.
So, I’d seen football. I’d seen it on the TV and I’d seen it in the flesh. I knew what was happening. I knew the players, too, collecting and filling the yearly sticker albums as did everyone of my generation. (Well, apart from the nancy boys). And although my nascent interest had co-incided with English clubs’ post-Heysel ban from playing European football, I’d seen football played as well as it can be, because the era’s dominant team were a magnificent Liverpool team: relentlessly successful, they also played with a verve and imagination which set them apart from all the others. Creativity, simplicity, skill and an understanding bordering on the telepathic were their calling cards.
But by Friday 8th June 1990, I’d never seen a World Cup Finals match. Four years previously, Diego Maradona had won the trophy almost on his own with only a little help from the Hand of God. In fact, such was my obliviousness to football at that time, the entire handball furore completely passed me by. My only memories of it remain as second hand retellings of the story. In addition to this, Diego’s more admirable exploits, had also all been essayed in my World Cup Italia ’90 folder, a weekly publication that I had been collecting since the previous Christmas. I was ready. On reflection, I was probably readier than I’ve been for the beginning of any of the five World Cups that have followed.
Readier, but not necessarily wiser. Nothing I knew, had read, played, watched or heard could have prepared me for what I saw in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. For a start, aside from El Diego and a few other familiar names, the defending champions’ team was pleasingly alien to me, even in spite of my sticker-collecting exploits. Cameroon, on the other hand, was a country I’d never even heard of. Presumably, from the appearance of the players and their names, it was somewhere in Africa. And somewhere where they played football, apparently. They played in green shirts with red shorts! And yellow socks! Yellow! Their goalkeeper was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a polo neck shirt in the heat of the Italian summer and the numbers on the backs of their shirt were excitingly gauche, such as 17 or 20. Unprecedented scenes.
I was 10 years old and I’d never seen a World Cup opening ceremony before. I got home from school and it was just starting on ITV. The colours, the noises, the countries. It was completely intoxicating. It didn’t hurt that the match was being played at the San Siro, a stadium that looked like it was a still frame from the opening titles of Top Of The Pops. My ten-year old brain was having trouble consolidating everything I’d prepared myself for and everything that was actually happening. Then, at 5 p.m. BST, the reigning World Champions and the national team of a country I’d never heard of walked out onto the field and played the most bewildering and enchanting football match I have ever seen in my life.
The Global Village is probably a good thing, on balance. Anything that brings people from different countries and creeds together to allow us to better understand how the differences in our cultures are far outweighed by our fundamental similarities, hopes, loves, fears and dreams as human beings. However, it does faff all for enhancing the magic of international football. As next year’s tournament begins, the current generation of ten-year old viewers will probably know the names of at least half of the players. They have probably seen them play for their club sides,maybe even seen them play in the flesh. They’ll know how teams are going to line up, understand their game plans and the likely rhythm of their play.
It’s hard to explain to younger people now – especially if you don’t want to come across as a grumpy old bastard, never a particular concern of mine – just how different the world was in 1990. Not only did I not recognise the players that I was watching by appearance, name or reputation, but every single one of the 24 sides in that summer’s tournament seemed to play in a style completely unique to them, one that summed up their nation’s personality.
This Cameroon team looked as though they had dropped to Earth from space that very morning. They did nothing like anything I’d ever seen before on a football field. They were loose, unpredictable, disorganised and chaotic. Their energy was infectious but you had to wonder quite what practical applications it would have when none of the players seemingly knew what the role of the ball was in the proceedings and whose sole strategic plan for nevertheless regaining the possession thereof was to commit assault. Watching it back now, you could quite easily convince yourself that the players in the green shirts were all playing a game to which none had been apprised of the rules in advance.
Just picking it up as you go along seemingly had its advantages, though, as a wasteful Argentina were punished on 67 minutes by François Omam-Biyik. Cameroon, a deceptively skilful team but one already down to ten men – André Kana-Biyik having, on the hour, become the first of many victims claimed at that summer’s tournament by FIFA’s new zero-tolerance for tackles from behind policy – had taken a shock lead.
Omam-Biyik’s strike was telling in itself: a free kick from the left-hand side of the Argentina penalty area took a number of deflections, the last one sending the ball looping in a graceful parabolic arc high above the players waiting below. Omam-Biyik headed the ball as it returned earthwards – or at least, the ball landed on his head – Omam-Biyik ended up on his arse, while his effort meekly scudded along the turf directly into the hands of Argentine custodian Nery Pumpido. Nery Pumpido somehow contrived to let it in.
What the hell is this? What is going on? Every single thing I knew was wrong. Nothing made any sense. Even the match commentator, the venerable Brian Moore, sounded utterly baffled so what chance did I have? It was ten-past six on Friday 8th June 1990 and I’d just seen my first World Cup Finals goal. It had seemingly been scored by mistake.
The match would have been remarkable enough had it just started to fit into established patterns thereon. Of course, despite all of Argentina’s efforts, Cameroon did indeed hold on for a famous 1-0 win, a World Cup shock worthy of inclusion in my World Cup 90 folder’s “Great Games” section. But even the result paled into complete insignificance compared with what happened a couple of minutes before full time. The tackle. *THE* tackle.
With Argentina looking desperately for a last-gasp equaliser, substitute Claudio Caniggia picked up the ball deep in his own half and burst forward. He skipped past a tackle on the half way line to the roar of the crowd. This was remarkable enough, as the defender was clearly more concerned with stopping him by any means possible rather than gaining possession of the match ball. A second tackle was quickly attempted with even more gusto, Caniggia just managing to evade it and regain his balance before the arrival of Benjamin Massing, the Cameroon centre back. What followed was the greatest tackle in World Cup history. It’s probably the greatest tackle in Rugby World Cup history, too. Massing didn’t go in studs first or with his feet high. It was pleasingly devoid of any malice at all. In fact, his first point of contact with Caniggia was the armpit. It is a truly remarkable piece of football. A moment of opportunistic, improvised skill interrupted by a shoulder charge taking place with such speed and impact that it removed one of the offender’s boots.
Nine-man Cameroon have beaten the reigning world champions and the world’s greatest player. No-one knows how. No-one could have predicted it. Nothing in the realms of knowledge previously available to mankind could have prepared anyone for this. The best part of it is, 23 years later and it is still funny. Heart-stoppingly, pound the floor with your fist funny. Shocking, magical, mystifying, erratic and unpredictable, yes, but irresistibly, undeniably funny. And that, THAT, was the first World Cup Finals match I had ever seen.
I await anything that can live up to it. I’m not hopeful, but always optimistic. That much about football supporters never changes.
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