By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (July 8, 2015) US Soccer Players – This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the 1990 World Cup final between West Germany and Argentina. The 1-0 win unleashed jubilation among the German players and left Diego Maradona in tears. Although that game, and the tournament as a whole, is widely maligned for its lack of scoring, what Italia ’90 really meant was the end of an era in world soccer.
That July 8 evening at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, West Germany won its third World Cup, its last before unification. It was also the last time that several European nations would play under one flag. Germany unified the following year and fellow participant Czechoslovakia amicably split soon after. Two others, the USSR and Yugoslavia, also splintered apart into a myriad of republics, not always peacefully, and gave rise to new teams.
On the field, things also changed. By the next World Cup, names appeared on the backs of shirts for the first time. The back pass rule limited how goalkeepers could control the flow of the game. That reinvented tactics across world soccer, drawing a line between what happened in Italy in 1990 and the future of the game. That also makes it easier to overlook the positives from Italia 90.
Cameroon dazzled fans with its joyous play. Costa Rica, coached by Bora Milutinovic, brought pride to CONCACAF. The tiny United Arab Emirates brought attention to Middle Eastern soccer decades before Qatar’s controversial World Cup bid. The USMNT reemerged at World Cup level.
World Cup ’90 also supplied many memorable images: Cameroon’s Roger Milla dancing near the corner kick flag, Italy’s Toto Schillaci and his string of goals, the flamboyancy and recklessness of Colombia goalkeeper Rene Higuita, just to name a few.
There were also personalities from that tournament who had/would have an impact on American soccer. Franz Becknebauer had played for the New York Cosmos and was the first to win the trophy as both a player and manager. Current USMNT Jurgen Klinsmann was also on the team. Other notables included Italy’s Roberto Donadoni and Germany’s Lothar Matthaus, both of whom would play with the NY/NJ MetroStars years later.
I was glued to the TV that summer, the channel firmly set to Univision, the 24-hour Spanish-language network. Although I spoke no Spanish, the passion of commentators Andreas Cantor and Norberto Longo filled my living room for hours each day. Understanding each word was not a prerequisite for watching. To this day, I consider Cantor and Longo one of the best commentating crews in all of sports. The passion in Cantor’s voice — and that amazing Goooooooool! call – and Longo’s knowledge made even the most mundane match exciting. To the world, Italia ’90 may have been dull. To me, it was an opera with an amazing soundtrack.
My favorite call? When Colombia’s Fredy Rincon (from a defense-splitting pass by Carlos Valderamma, another future MLSer) scored three minutes into stoppage time to tie West Germany during the group phase to earn a berth to the knockout round. It seemed as if Cantor mustered all his energy to strain those fantastic vocal chords. Even Longo got in a word, saying “Milagro de Colombia” amid all the craziness. You don’t need to understand Spanish to know what that means.
Unfortunately, Longo died of a heart attack in 2003. As for Cantor, who continues to do play-by-play, being born in Argentina was no obstacle to his call of Andreas Brehme’s goal on a penalty kick in the final.
“Those are the toughest calls of my career,” Cantor told me in a 2010 interview. “Emotions do run high, for sure, when Argentina is involved. I try to keep my emotions to myself. On air, I am as cool and collected and unbiased as I can be.”
Just how did Cantor preserve his voice calling all those games from a studio in Miami? “I always have my honey with me and hot team and lemon,” he said.
The United States qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years featuring a group of young players who are now considered soccer pioneers. Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Paul Caligiuri, Peter Vermes and Bruce Murray were all on that team that went 0-3. It didn’t really matter. Caligiuri’s goal that gave the USA a 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago that prior November was what had mattered most.
“For me, (the Trinidad & Tobago game) remains one of the biggest games I ever played in,” Meola told me in 2013. “That game got US Soccer back on the map. It put us back on the world stage.”
Indeed. Despite exiting in the group stage but showing signs of the future with a slim 1-0 loss to Italy, the team built its foundation. For USMNT players, fans, as well as its coach, Italia 90 certainly matters.
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