“Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans win."
This famous Gary Lineker quote might have been uttered partly in jest, but it captured an expectation of failure in England that stems from plenty of painful experience. Drama and disappointment have tended to go hand-in-hand with the Three Lions’ major tournament experiences over recent decades, and none of their failures brought more despair than defeat in the semi-final of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™.
One hundred and twenty minutes of emotion, tension and passion combined for a match later described as “a Klassiker” by Franz Beckenbauer, and as Italy 1990’s “real final” by the then England captain Terry Butcher. Here, FIFA.com looks back at a game that paved the way for yet more German success and signalled the start of their opponents’ long-running penalty curse.
With Argentina having seen off the hosts the day before, these old rivals arrived in Turin with the carrot of settling an old score dangling tantalisingly before them. For West Germany, the challenge was to set up a rematch of the 1986 Final, and reverse the outcome; for England, it was to avenge Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ at the same tournament.
Yet the teams’ form in previous rounds suggested that there was only one likely winner. West Germany had, after all, been the tournament’s most accomplished side and highest scorers, comfortably topping their group before brushing aside the Netherlands, who were then European champions. England, on the other hand, had scored just twice in their three group games, and came into the match on the back of an ill-deserved extra-time victory over the gallant Cameroonians. “We’ve got here,” said Robson, “but I don’t know how.”
This was also the Three Lions’ first FIFA World Cup semi-final since 1966, whereas the Germans were competing in the last four for a record ninth time. The odds were stacked firmly against Robson’s men.
The England coach’s only hope was that his team would produce when it mattered most and, during the match itself, they did just that. Lothar Matthaus, hitherto the tournament’s leading player, had grown accustomed to dictating matches, but he was to meet his match that humid evening in the Stadio delle Alpi.
Paul Gascoigne was the joker in Robson’s pack, an ebullient but fragile character who also happened to be a midfielder of exceptional strength and skill. He had been England’s shining light prior to the semi-final, and was again the pivotal figure as the Three Lions produced their best performance of the tournament to subdue and, at times, dominate the favourites.
Yet, at half-time, the match remained goalless, with little hinting at the classic that was about to unfold. The spark that lit the touchpaper came on the hour mark, when Andreas Brehme's drilled free-kick took a huge deflection off Paul Parker and looped over the despairing Peter Shilton. If anything, the setback seemed to inspire England and Gascoigne to greater heights and, within five minutes, he had created chances for Lineker, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle, all of which went begging.
But Robson still had a tactical trick up his sleeve, and the gamble of withdrawing Butcher, his sweeper and captain, for midfielder Trevor Steven paid off with ten minutes remaining. The Germans had been put on the back foot, and when Jurgen Kohler miscued a hurried clearance, Lineker capitalised on the confusion to smash home his fourth goal of the finals.
The match could have gone either way in extra time, with both sides hitting the post, but penalties beckoned and it was West Germany who held their nerve. Brehme, Matthaus, Karl-Heinze Riedle and Olaf Thon provided a masterclass in power, precision and composure that their English counterparts simply couldn’t match, with Stuart Pearce the first to crack under the strain. Blasting the ball against Bodo Illgner’s legs left Waddle needing to score to keep English hopes alive, but the winger blazed over from 12 yards and the Germans were through.
"I went up and kicked the ball as hard as I could,” Waddle recalled later. “If I'd miskicked it, it would probably have gone in. But that's life."
For one English player, life would never be the same again. Gascoigne had been described by his coach as “daft as a brush”, but Robson’s faith in Gazza the footballer was fully justified in Turin by an outstanding display full of industry and invention.
Yet it was not the midfielder’s performance, but rather his reaction to earning a yellow card that would have ruled him out of the Final – and later to England’s defeat – that put him on the back pages of newspapers the world over. Holding back the tears proved impossible, and the public display of raw emotion that followed merely endeared Gascoigne further to the already besotted England fans.
Sadly for those same supporters, their hero’s tearful display also prompted Robson to relegate him to sixth place in the order of penalty takers. “I doubt if he could actually have taken one, he was so distraught,” the coach said later. “He broke down in the middle of the pitch when the penalties were being taken.”
What they said
“When I was a young kid playing at my youth club, every night I used to dream about playing football at the World Cup. I lived that dream in Italy, but when I was shown the yellow card I knew it had come to an end. When things are good and I can see they’re about to end I get scared, really scared. I couldn’t help but cry that night.”
Paul Gascoigne, England midfielder
"It was the best match of the World Cup for me… Everything was there in that game. Either team could have won. The players had real comradeship. Even now, if I meet one of the England players, we could go and have a drink and talk about it. I always enjoyed playing against England.”
Andreas Brehme, Germany defender
“My world collapsed. I had been taking penalties for as long as I could remember, but I’d missed the most important penalty of my life. It was my fault that England were not in the World Cup Final.”
Stuart Pearce, England defender
"I still remember Peter Shilton not diving towards the corner until the previous penalties from Riedle, Matthaus and Brehme had already gone in, so I said to myself: ‘Come on son, just hit the target, nothing too precise, nothing too risky.’ And that’s what I did. He went the right way, but he was too late."
Olaf Thon, Germany midfielder
What happened next...
England, with Gascoigne suspended, were beaten 2-1 by Italy in the third-place play-off, while their conquerors exacted revenge over Argentina in an ugly Final. A solitary Andreas Brehme penalty enabled West Germany to draw level with Brazil as the FIFA World Cup’s most successful side - for four years at least - while Franz Beckenbauer became the first and only man since Mario Zagallo to win the Trophy as player and coach.
Pearce, opting against retirement, was able to lay the ghost of Turin to rest six years later when he scored from the spot against Spain in the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 96. England, however, went out on penalties in the last four to, you've guessed it, Germany, and have since gone on to lose crucial shootouts at EURO 2004 and the 2006 FIFA World Cup.