The concept of England having a high level of expectation at the time of a World Cup finals is a comparatively recent one. As recently as 1990, most adults could remember their two successive failures to qualify for the whole event and, once there, they only seldom lit the tournament up. In 1982, a good performance in the opening match against France was followed by an almost linear deterioration in performance, which ended in their elimination in the second group round after two goalless draws against West Germany and Spain. Much was made of the fact that they were eliminated, due to the peculiar tournament structure, unbeaten, but they only scored one goal in their final three matches. Four years later, Diego Maradona’s various antics overshadowed a slow start that saw them lose to Portugal and draw with Morocco before Gary Lineker’s goals breathed some life into them.

Going into the 1990 World Cup finals, there was little for England supporters to be particularly optimistic about. Their performance at the 1988 European Championships had been abject and, while their final qualification group table for the trip to Italy looked comfortable, the four point gap between them in second place and Poland in third place was somewhat deceptive. A goalless draw in Chorzow against Poland had guaranteed their place, but defeat would likely have eliminated them. In addition to this, the knives of the more hysterical corners of the press were well and truly out for Bobby Robson, who, completely understandably, decided before the start of the tournament that the job wasn’t worth the effort and the grief, and signed a pre-nup with PSV Eindhoven, and the threat of serious hooliganism left those that did give a damn about the reputation of the country abroad with a sense of distinct unease about what might happen in Italy.

Even before the draw for the finals, there was controversy about England’s placing in the scheme of things. They sneaked into the final first seed position just ahead of Spain, and there were noises in the Spanish camp that this had been fixed. Luis Suarez, the Spanish coach, said that, “We feel we’ve been cheated… they wanted to seed England and to send them to Cagliari at all costs, so they invented this formula”. FIFA denied this interpretation of the seeding choice, but the very fact that there was open discussion of England supporters having to be quarantined spoke volumes of their still battered reputation. They would go on to cause a degree of trouble at the finals but stopped some way short of the apocalyptic predictions hurled around the tournament, though to fulfil the worst of these they would have needed to stop little short of turning Sardinia into the new Atlantis.

They kicked off with a match against the Republic of Ireland, a match which, even in a distinctly underwhelming tournament, prompted one Italian newspaper to the headline, “No Football Please, We’re British” the following day. The Irish may have justified complaint about being described as “British”, but the sentiment was entirely apposite. England took an early lead when Gary Lineker bundled the ball over the line with his midriff, and Ireland’s second half equaliser, whilst very well taken by Kevin Sheedy, came about as the result of a piece of ball control from Steve McMahon that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning. England had, for those that prefer their glasses half full, at least avoided the ignomious defeat that Ireland had inflicted upon them at the European Championships two years earlier, but overall there weren’t many more positives to be taken from the match than that.

Next up, the Netherlands – the European champions. This, however, wasn’t the vintage team of just two years earlier. They’d been held to a 1-1 draw in their opening match against Egypt and the two teams cancelled each other out in Cagliari, although marginally the better chances of the two teams fell to England. Bobby Robson had switched to a more defensive formation for this match with Mark Wright as sweeper. That was enough to keep the Dutch attack quiet. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, one surprise came in the appearance from the bench of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Steve Bull, who had been playing in the Second Division the previous season. Bull came as close to scoring as anyone. Most noticeable, however, was the improvement in Paul Gascoigne’s game. For the English, who were used to midfield players of a sturdy, practical nature (and all too often with little more to recommend them), Gascoigne was more than a breath of fresh air. He was a jolt to the system.

The final group match saw England play Egypt, knowing that a draw would probably be enough for them to scrape through to the next round. Some sections of the press, predictably, got angry with Robson again as they laboured to a 1-0 win, but they shouldn’t have been too surprised by this. Egypt had convincingly beaten Scotland in one of their warm-up matches and deserved better than to go out, finishing bottom of the group. Mark Wright scored the only goal of the match and results went their way elsewhere, too, with the Netherlands and Ireland drawing (again) to leave England, with just two goals from three matches, top of their group and through to the Second Round of the tournament. Thanks to FIFA’s lopsided system for this tournament (and it was the same as they used in 1986 and 1994), both Ireland and the Netherlands followed them through to the next round as well.

Their second round opponents were Belgium, who had made the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup before coming up against Diego Maradona and had finished second in their group behind Spain with two comfortable wins from their three matches, against South Korea and Uruguay. The England support (who had got in trouble on the evening of the Netherlands match) had to be allowed onto the mainland to travel to Bologna and there were further disturbances on the evening of that match, though not as great as might have been expected. On the pitch, meanwhile, England were labouring. Jan Ceulemans hit the post for Belgium in the first half and Enzo Scifo did likewise in the second, but England improved in extra-time and, in the last minute before a penalty shoot-out, substitute David Platt volleyed a free kick past the Belgian goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme (whose full name, you may be interested to know, is the somewhat weighty Michel Georges Jean Ghislain Preud’Homme) to put England into a most unexpected quarter-final.

Platt’s goal seemed to lift a weight from the shoulders of the team. They had got as far as they had four years earlier, and their quarter-final opponents were Cameroon rather than one of the pre-tournament favourites. For all of the pre-match talk in the press, however, Cameroon thoroughly deserved their place in the last eight of the competition. They had beaten the holders, Argentina, in their opening match and Romania in their second, guaranteeing their place in the second round with a game to spare – fortuitously, as things turned out, since they lost 4-0 to the USSR in their final group match. In the second round, they had benefitted from a little luck when Rene Higuita, the eccentric Colombian goalkeeper, had one of his “moments” to gift them what turned out to be the decisive goal in their 2-1 extra-time win. In a tournament of dourness, however, they had shown more than enough to earn their place in the last eight of the competition.

The quarter-final turned out to be one of the most entertaining matches of the tournament. England took the lead after twenty-five minutes when David Platt headed home a superb cross from Stuart Pearce at the far post. It was a scarcely deserved lead, though, with England’s defence – perhaps surprisingly, considering that they had conceded just one goal in their previous four matches in the tournament – looking particularly lead-footed when faced with the excellent movement and crisp passing of the Cameroonian players. At half-time, however, Cameroon introduced Roger Milla, and the entire shape of the game changed. Just after the hour, Cameroon were awarded a penalty, which Emmanuel Kundé converted. Four minutes later, some tight passing and a aping hole at the centre of the English defence allowed Eugene Ekeke to run through and lift the ball over Peter Shilton to put them in front. Defeat started to look likely, but with seven minutes to play they were handed a lifeline when Gary Lineker was tripped on the edge of the penalty area, picked himself up and scored to bring England level. The match pushed into extra-time, and England’s ride on the crest wave continued when they were awarded another penalty for a foul on Lineker, who picked himself up to give England a 3-2 lead. They held on to get through to the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time since they won it twenty-four years earlier. And their semi-final was against West Germany.

There wasn’t as much nervousness associated with playing West Germany in 1990 as there is now. For most people, the score between the two sides was 1-1, with England taking the lead in 1966 and West Germany equalising four years later, although some would also point to West Germany’s troucing of England in the European Championships in 1972 and knocking England out of the second group stage of the 1982 World Cup as evidence for a need to redress some sort of balance. The Germans had been the best of a mediocre bunch up to that point, and England started as the underdogs, but the general feeling was that England, with the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker starting to play to their full potential, could just a scrape a win.

England started well, and got to half-time goalless. Fourteen minutes into the second half, however, West Germany took the lead with a goal assisted by a massive stroke of luck. West Germany won a free-kick around twenty-five yards from Peter Shilton’s goal. Andres Brehme had the ball nudged into his path, and his shot looped up off the leg of England defender Paul Parker, over Shilton and in. It looked as if this slice of luck would be enough, but with ten minutes to play Parker swung the ball over from the England right, the German defence got in a muddle and Gary Lineker drove the ball across the face of goal and into the corne of the goal to push the match into extra-time. In the extra thirty minutes, Chris Waddle hit the crossbar with an extraordinary attempted lob from forty-five yards and Buchwald also struck woodwork for Germany. This time, though, they would have to go to penalty kicks for a place in the final.

The penalty shoot-out that followed was never going to be won by England. Peter Shilton, two and a half months off his forty-first birthday at the time, seemed to dive for the precise West German kicks like a sack of flour falling over. Meanwhile, England, for all of the skill that they had at their disposal, seemed that one iota more tired and less focussed. Chris Waddle fired miles over, while Stuart Pearce struck the German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner’s legs. England were out, despite having played their best 120 minutes of the tournament. The penalty shoot-out became a national stigma almost immediately. The only time that any calamine lotion was applied to it, against Spain at the 1996 European Championships, England received a new dose less than a week later, again against Germany. Since then, return visits to that particular circle of hell have been revisited at the hands of Argentina and Portugal, who managed the feat twice. At the time of writing, it feels as if they will never win one again.

They returned home as heroes, and the rest fits into a comfortable narrative. According to received wisdom, the resurgence in interest in the game led to the formation of the Premier League and the revitalisation of English football started apace, in shiny new stadia. Except… none of that is strictly true. The resurgence of interest in the football in England had already started, and it was The Taylor Report that prompted new grounds to be built rather than the Premier League. The Premier League was certainly not about capitalising on the success of the national team, of course. It was about television money. There had been persistent talk of a “Super League” since the early 1980s. Indeed, those that believed the FA’s original hype about the Premier League being for the benefit of the England team couldn’t have been more wrong. The home-based Euro ’96 apart, England haven’t got as far in a major tournament in the eighteen years since 1992 and the Premier League frequently now seems to be at odds with the FA after it shunted them out of the way and started to run itself.

The key members of the England 1990 World Cup team were gone within two years of the tournament. Peter Shilton retired, and Bobby Robson left for PSV. Within a year, Paul Gascoigne injured himself horribly in the FA Cup final, an injury from which his career never fully recovered, whilst Gary Lineker soldiered on until the 1992 European Championships. After taking just two points from their four matches against the Netherlands and Norway, England didn’t even make the finals of the 1994 World Cup finals, and Robson’s replacement, Graham Taylor, paid the price for failing to match newly-raised expectations with his job. Eighteen years on, the press are as puerile as they were in 1990 and, although the likelihood of hooliganism this summer in South Africa is slim, there are still enough English knuckle-draggers around to make the experience of watching matches in public at home an uncomfortable one. At twenty years remove, the experience remains the same, yet different. Union Jack flags have been replaced with St George’s crosses, the National Front has gone, but the English Defence League lurks in the background. England remain one of the most curious national teams, a mixture of bravado and psychological and technical weakness. They will achieve something massive if they manage to equal the achievement of their 1990 counterparts.