Italia 90: The mythologising of nostalgia

england-fans-italia90A lot of football is based on looking back reminiscing about the glory days commiserating over what could have been, it’s a way of continually reconnecting with the history you have invested so much time and energy over. It places you within that environment you permanently agonise over yet ultimately celebrate. It asserts your contribution, it authenticates your experience. At its most basic it says ‘we were here, this is what we lived, it is real’. Our reference points are usually framed around facts and figures – things that cannot be disputed, but the most joy in remembering is reserved for personal anecdotes especially those that firm up into some kind of universal appeal.

A beautifully written first person account by Neal Heard of his trip to Italy for the World Cup first appeared in the equally brilliant Mundial magazine

With football, shared experiences usually define shared memories. Except when those memories are provided for us, handed down to us from above. Become official history. (Typically it’s the media who promotes itself as the guardian of official history). And it’s this that makes the re-telling of Italia 90 so interesting. The tournament took place 25 years ago this month which is why there has been a rash of articles in the press re-assessing ‘what it all meant’, a socially cleansed retrospective for the post-Premiership audience. Official history has a way of re-writing the narrative to suit a particular perspective.

So while we do get the ‘what we did’ accounts and ‘i was there’ personal testimonies the overarching narrative which is hammered home is that somehow after Italia 90 everything was different, football changed forever. Gary Lineker perhaps best summed up this viewpoint in the BBC article How the 1990 World Cup changed England: “It was a seminal moment almost, in terms of football in this country. Lots of different kinds of people got interested in football, all different classes of people, I think it had a significant effect on the growth of football.” ¹

What is being played out amongst the middle class commentators is that they are writing themselves (and their class) into the forefront of footballing folklore. This was their grand entrance; the narrative being offered up is that football after Italia 90 became more acceptable, more civilised, more appealing to the middle classes, indeed it became their sport. This is the history from above. And with that the ordinary working class fan, who doesn’t have a voice in mainstream media, is once again written out of the picture, relegated to an inconvenience, a distraction, a distorted news piece, a would-be hooligan in the making, an insult and ultimately an embarrassment. The middle class fan becomes the essential expression of the real supporter, the authentic voice of the terraces.

This is what novelist Pete Davies had to say in Esquire magazine “Prior to Italia 90 football in England was perceived as a squalid, hooligan-ridden, embarrassing sump of gormless violence. Our team was crap, our supporters were worse, and you did not talk about it over dinner.” ² (The telling phrase here is you did not talk about it over dinner – for us it was the only thing we ever talked to each other about over dinner. Or should that be tea?).

The reality is for most ordinary fans football carried on pretty much as normal. In the official history Gazza’s tears and World in Motion and a sample of Italian opera all made for a perfect vehicle to usher in the new class of fan. In reality there were running battles between England and Dutch fans, between England fans and Italian police, there was mass disorder, tear gas, arrests, beatings, deportations and prison sentences, the English working class, the football fan aboard, feared and vilified, targeted and under constant scrutiny remained true to himself. A lost cause, maybe, forever fighting – fighting the authorities, fighting the police, fighting ancient foes and imagined enemies, fighting each other, fighting for territory, for a place in the world, fighting against the wilful destruction of working class communities and traditional industries, fighting to keep your head above water. For however ugly the stain of hooliganism followed them about they remained real people with real lives living out a real history. And no amount of whitewashing their presence from Italia 90 can change that.

When they say “a return to the dark days”
But we need some context for all this. Since coming to power in 1979 the Tory government had been waging an almost non-stop war against the British football fan. Along with their faithful servants in the right-wing media, who had succeeded in writing the official history of football hooliganism throughout the 1980s, there was a war of attrition against the ‘problem’ of being a football fan. If the miners’ strike was the Tories attack on the working class in the workplace then the treatment of football fans was their attack on the working class in a social setting. Legislation was being introduced along with greater police powers and newly formed surveillance bodies to ensure that football fans could be controlled, monitored and punished for simply being a football supporter.

In the months prior to the World Cup the government, the FA, the police and the media (the four horsemen of the apocalypse) hyped up the fear factor of the visiting England fans to an almost hysterical degree. They were predicting and expecting a blood bath. The police in typically opportunistic language announced in the press that England ‘thugs’ saw Italia 90 as “the apex of their hooligan career”. The sports minister, the execrable Colin Moynihan, was still trying to push through the id card scheme and was part of a government who wanted to pull England out of the World Cup finals altogether. He was forever announcing how bad the England fans were going to be in Italy. As Matthew Engel drily pointed out in the Guardian at the time: “Britain is the only country which sends a government minister around telling other countries how dreadful his fellow citizens are.”

But it wasn’t just at football grounds, it was kicking off all over the place. The poll tax riot (most serious outbreak of rioting for over a century) and Strangeways prison riot both happened just months before the World Cup. Plus there was also the ongoing battle of the illegal raves, dance sub culture which was on its second summer, now a more organised and disorderly clarion call for disaffected youth especially given how good the drugs were.

And yes there is a temptation to romanticise ‘the football hooligan’ as a fundamental expression of displaced working class anger. The psychos and sociopaths, the maladjusted, the hangers-on, the overt and implicit racist all found a home amongst the rampaging mob, but for the most part they were just ordinary young men who would one day have the privilege of being written about in books and documented in films.

We are living through the new dark days now. Every aspect of being a football fan today is reliant on somebody else’s approval, permission and money. Gentrification starts with the middle classes wanting to buy in. If Italia 90 should have taught us anything at all, it was a warning of those things to come.



Just two points in response to Pete Davies’ remarks above:
One: Euro 92 England came bottom of their table without winning a game, 1994 World Cup they didn’t even qualify.
Two: 1990 England fans clash with Italian fans and police in Rimini before a World Cup match in Bologna. 1992 Violence by English hooligans in Malmo and Stockholm at European championship finals raise doubts whether England should host 1996 tournament. 1993 England fans clash with Dutch police in Amsterdam on eve of World Cup qualifying game against Holland. 1995 Friendly international against Republic of Ireland in Dublin abandoned after 27 minutes when England fans riot. 1996 Hooligans riot in Trafalgar Square after England lose to Germany on penalties in Euro 96 semi-final. 1997 Italian police baton-charge England fans at Rome’s Olympic stadium after supporters cause trouble. 1998 England fans cause trouble during England’s opening match of World Cup 98 against Tunisia in Marseille

Yes both Scotland and Republic of Ireland were very much part of Italia 90 too and their fans have their own history to remember


Kevin Allen’s World Cup Video Diary Insightful fly-on-the-wall type documentary of an England fan’s eye view of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Finals in Italy



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