Purging the Ghosts of Italia '90



England are in the World Cup semi-final again, a joyfully new experience for those too young to remember the last time.

For my generation though, it brings back memories of the greatest and saddest day in England's football history.

Italia '90. Turin. Penalties.

Those words are burned into my heart and soul.

I was a boy becoming a man at the time and my emotions were at their height. Football had been my boyhood - scarves, shirts, shorts and socks, Panini stickers, Match of the Day and Radio 2's Saturday afternoon. Brian Clough and Trevor Francis. Come on you reds.

My love for Nottingham Forest had become obsessional, buying membership and travelling to games in the East Midlands from down in the South of England.

When Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Neil Webb became integral parts of the England team en route to the final I was doubly behind England in Italy. Never mind the expense or inconvenience, I was getting on a plane to Rome.

That World Cup was the culmination of my childhood fandom, the players I had grown up with reaching their pinnacle at the highest level.

So when Pearce, Forest's buccaneering captain missed England's fateful penalty in the semi-final with Germany, my world fell in. I cried, my friends cried and my father, who never shows his emotions, was clearly upset.

I think I was holding my mother's hand by the fourth penalty.

I did not understand it at the time but football always gives you another bite at the cherry, Germany were a better team and all but one set of fans leaves the World Cup in tears or regret at missed chances.

For days and weeks and probably months and years I reran that match in my head, frustrated there was no way of making England win.

The injustice of Gazza's booking, of Chris Waddle's shot off the post and the annoyance at what were two poor England spot-kicks reverberated.

It was for Englishmen of my generation, a trauma of sorts, but one we look back with pride. As C.S. Lewis said explaining the purpose of pain, when a stone is broken and chipped away at by the stonemason it becomes perfect.

Is it time for purging that injustice now, righting that ancient wrong? The cycle of football affords endless opportunities for redemption.

Italia '90 was a purging for English football, although we did not know it at the time. After a decade of Bradford, Heysel, Hillsborough and hooliganism, a new football culture was born. English society accepted its greatest sport again.

With time, the pain of that night in Turin has seeped away, replaced by a conundrum that England seem incapable of reaching the final of the European Championship or the World Cup.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, England can again.

Russia 2018 has been an exceptionally commodious passage for England to the last four than was Italia '90.

There the Three Lions began with a lower-league clash with Eire (1-1), a creditable 0-0 draw with a troubled Netherlands and a smooth 1-0 win over Egypt.

The knockout stages were pure attrition for Bobby Robson's side however. A fraught game with Belgium, who hit the post twice and trouble goalie Peter Shilton many times, ended with a last-gasp David Platt winner, seconds before the end of extra-time.

Then England were 2-1 down and heading for the exit against Cameroon in the quarters before a brace of Gary Lineker penalties saved the day.

Colombia minus their star and Sweden have been much easier navigations. Croatia in 2018, with the greatest of respect, are also not in the same class as West Germany's World Cup winning side of 28 years ago.

Back home, talk of 1990 has just given way to that of 1966, with the nine survivors of England's greatest 11 ready to fly out for the final on Sunday.

This euphoria risks becoming hysteria. First there is the wily midfield of Croatia to overcome and then the awesome firepower of either Belgium or France.

Still, every generation must carve its own football memories.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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