Jul 8, 2015
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On The Cusp of Modernity: The Legacy of Italia ’90

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For purposes of convenience and to aid our understanding, we make a habit of dividing the past into neat chapters. These chapters typically take the form of decades. Of course, such attempts to slice up history are always bound to be arbitrary and heavy handed; the mood did not suddenly change on the 1st January 1970 as people realised the fruitful 60’s were over and the more austere and fraught 70’s were upon them. It is only in retrospect that we begin to weave such narratives into the past.

25 years on from the 1990 World Cup in Italy, or Italia 90 as it is commonly known, the tournament has taken on the appearance of a threshold; a tantalising interlude between ‘old football’ and ‘modern football’. It is an especially significant event in the modern history of English football. In many respects the tournament was something of an opiate, a blessed relief to a footballing nation that was a pariah within Europe and to a fan base that had suffered tragedy and demoniziation in equal measure over the previous decade.

Make no mistake, the 1980’s were a nadir for English football, or more specifically, football fandom in England. In the middle of the decade attendance at 1st division matches reached an all-time low, as people stayed away as a result of both hooliganism and the authorities’ reaction to hooliganism; heavy handed attempts at crowd control by the Police and the packing of fans like cattle onto the now notorious special trains made attending a football match thoroughly un pleasant in many cases.

The decade was dotted with human disasters, most notably at Heysel in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989, but also the ‘forgotten’ tragedy that was the Valley Parade fire which happened a matter of weeks before Heysel. At total of 191 fans died in these three tragedies. In recent years it has been proven that Hillsborough was not only a tragedy but a scandal; combining both incompetence on the day itself with outright mendacity from South Yorkshire police during the subsequent cover up and smear campaign against Liverpool fans.

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This was entirely consistent with the rhetoric of the Thatcher government, the police and the tabloid press during this era to defame and de humanise football supporters as another ‘enemy within’; an underclass outside of respectable society who were to be shunned. It is surely significant that an opportunity was seized to attack Liverpool as a city, who’s hard left City Council had tried to defy the government’s attacks on local government. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but I don’t believe in coincidences either.

By the time of World Cup opening ceremony however, football was mixing it with respectable high culture as the ‘Three Tenors’ performance in Rome announced the tournament open in a tremulous baritone. Football was also integrated into popular culture back home, as John Barnes’ slightly cringe worthy yet infectious rap on New Order’s ‘World in Motion’ provided England’s soundtrack for the summer. Slowly the shame associated with being a football fan was being shed. Further optomism would be provided by the fact England reached the semi-finals. It would take until the European Championships on home soil in 1996 for this ascendant optimism to crystallise fully.

If Italia 90 represents the beginning of English football’s emergence from the ‘Dark Ages’, it also offers us an interesting window of opportunity to speculate about how modernity as we know it could have been different. Just two years after the World Cup, the Big Six clubs led a breakaway from the Football League and the Premiership was founded. Shortly after this, Rupert Murdoch took the decision that his failing satellite television company, Sky, would be better served if it focused on covering live football. It was these two processes that were crucial in shaping modern English football as we know it. Many people assume the two developments were simultaneous and conscious of one and other. In truth, the contemporaneous success of Sky and the Premiership was a happy accident.

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It is most difficult for any football follower of my age to imagine modern English football without the marriage of Sky Sports and The Premier League. Modern football has provided the fan with a faster paced, higher standard of football and England has been able to attract some of the best talent from around the world. Fear of violence when attending a football match has greatly diminished over the past 25 years. Modern all seater stadiums are capable of providing crowd control while guaranteeing crowd safety.

Nevertheless, such positive developments have come at a cost. While broadcasters’ money has piled into the game, ticket prices have continued to rise. This ought not to be the case in an era when Premier League clubs are relying less and less on match day revenue and ticket sales to turn a profit. Across the top division, clubs are riddled with debt and the financial gap between the Premier League and other layers of the football pyramid is growing at an alarming rate. Crowds have been sanitised to the detriment of atmosphere, though this has much to do with the demographics of Premier League crowds. The young, typically the source of most of the noise within stadiums, are finding it increasingly difficult to afford Premier League ticket prices.

Wembley has a capacity of 90,000 people yet a club that reaches the FA Cup final can only expect an allocation of 25,000 lest the ‘football family’, which in plain English means sponsors, be disappointed. Broadcasters are able to re arrange fixtures to suit their viewing figures, often giving supporters the thin end of a few weeks’ notice to make arrangements. Arsenal fans will have to travel to Hull on a Monday evening, or Liverpool supporters down to the Emirates. From next season onward, Friday night matches will be thrown into the equation.

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Such speculation about what might have been is moot now, but it is intriguing to contemplate a possible ‘Third Way’ that could have emerged during the years between 1990 and 1992. There should be no nostalgia for the era that Italia 90 marked the conclusion of, but perhaps there could have been a greater synthesis between the new and what was valuable in the old.

A match day experience where fans were safe and free from the fear of violence, yet one that was not devoid of atmosphere. A more entertaining and attractive spectacle on the pitch that attracted the best players from around the world, yet where clubs remained tied to their local communities. Comprehensive television coverage of football, yet a willingness to use the money this coverage generated to subsidies ticket prices.

The problem with such counter-factual speculation is that we shall never know how such a synthesis might have turned out. A contemplation of how things might have been different however, may enlighten us about how the current climate could be improved. Italia 90 was crucial marker post in the journey of English football towards its current state. The tournament is delicously located between the spheres of the old and the modern, and that shall be its enduring legacy.

Dan Zeqiri

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University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.

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