On one side were three-time world champions Italy, a global footballing powerhouse hosting the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in 56 years. On the other were an Argentina side looking to retain the title they won at Mexico 1986 and boasting the legendary Diego Maradona in their ranks.

The Maradona factor lent a touch of controversy to the game. Staged as it was at Naples’ Estadio San Paolo, the local tifosi were torn between supporting the Napoli idol and their national team, adding to the spice of a match made appetising enough by the fact there was a World Cup Final place at stake.

Played on 3 July 1990, the showdown exceeded all expectations, as La Squadra Azzurra and La Albiceleste served up what was without doubt one of the most vibrant and unforgettable matches of the whole competition.

The host nation had gone to every length to organise a spectacular tournament, one they had no hesitation in calling “The World Cup of the Modern Era”. Ten of the country’s stadiums had been remodelled for the event and two new ones built, while the opening ceremony showcased Italian style at its best and the official tournament song proved especially catchy. With all the World Cup’s previous winners in attendance, each fielding their star players, it promised to be quite a competition.

The Italians feared Argentina. Despite heading into the game in better shape than the reigning world champions, the mere presence of Maradona made them doubt their chances of success. Though hampered by injury, he remained the undisputed king of world football, while his magical touch was still very much intact. There was also little question that the diminutive genius would be inspired by playing in Naples, his home from home.

El Pelusa recalled the build-up to the game in his autobiography Yo Soy el Diego: “It was no ordinary semi-final. We were up against Italy, and in Naples too! When I spoke to the press, I was happy and I said that thing they would never forgive me for. It was true, though: ‘It upsets me that everyone is now asking the people of Naples to be Italians and to get behind the national team.”

Faced with the dilemma posed by their beloved Diego taking on their country, the Neapolitans hung up banners that read: “Diego in our hearts, Italy in our chants” and “Maradona: Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland.”

The stakes
Hosts Italy went into the game as favourites, having won all five of their matches to that point, beating Austria, USA, Czechoslovakia, Uruguay and Republic of Ireland without even conceding a goal.

The Italian squad was packed full of talent, with the incomparable Franco Baresi manning the defence along with Paolo Maldini, Walter Zenga in goal, and the young and talented Roberto Baggio linking up with Gianluca Vialli and goalscoring sensation Salvatore Totó Schillaci, who would end the tournament with the adidas Golden Boot in his possession.

In contrast, Argentina had been anything but convincing in defending their title. After losing to Cameroon in their opening match, they squeezed through the group phase as one of the best third-placed sides. Outplayed for long periods by Brazil in the Round of 16, they eventually won through when Claudio Caniggia scored the only goal of the game from a delicious Maradona pass.

Taking on Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals, they failed to make a one-man advantage count in an insipid 0-0 draw, only booking a place in the semi-finals after a penalty shootout. Adding to the uncertainty about their play was Maradona’s fitness. Carrying an inflamed right foot and a swollen left ankle, he could barely walk. They were the world champions nevertheless, and were determined to remain so.

The story
Gli Azzurri made a strong start to the game and quickly showed their intent. The South Americans struggled to settle, though Jorge Burruchaga did test Zenga early on with a powerful right-footed drive from outside the penalty box.

With 17 minutes on the clock, however, the Italians went in front, Schillaci tucking the ball home after Sergio Goycochea had parried a Vialli shot. As the tension rose, the Argentinians started to come into the game. Buoyed by the experience of Ricardo Giusti, Julio Olarticoechea, Burruchaga, Oscar Ruggeri and Maradona, they began to dictate the play and finished the half stronger than their opponents.

Argentina produced their best football of Italy 1990 after the restart, and pulled level on 67 minutes when Maradona picked out Olarticoechea on the left and the defender swung in a cross that Caniggia glanced past the advancing Zenga and into the net. After  517 minutes of play, the Italians had conceded their first goal of the tournament.

Nerves then took a hold of both sides as the chances dried up and the friction levels increased. Extra-time was an inevitability, and when it arrived Baggio almost put Italy back in front with an arcing free-kick that Goycochea did well to claw over the bar. Argentina were reduced to ten men when referee Michel Vautrot gave Giusti his marching orders. As he later admitted, the French official became so caught up in events that he let the clock run on and only called the first period to an end after 23 minutes.

A man down, La Albiceleste retreated into their defensive shell, and with the Italians unable to break through, the game went to penalties. Baresi, Jose Serrizuela, Baggio, Burruchaga, Luigi De Agostini and Olarticoechea all converted from the spot to leave the shootout tied at 3-3, at which point Goycochea flung himself to his left to deny Roberto Donadoni and Maradona coolly slotted home to put his side ahead. The Argentinian keeper then guessed correctly again to keep out Aldo Serena’s spot-kick and send Carlos Bilardo’s men through to their second consecutive Final.

What they said
“My happiest memory of Italy 1990 is celebrating after saving Serena’s penalty in the semi-final. It was just an expression of how this wonderful game can make you feel: me running around in a stadium that had fallen silent and hearing nothing but the shouts of my team-mates. It was like saving a penalty from my childhood friend El Gordo Mario on a pitch in my hometown of Lima. That’s what came to my mind, though the stakes were much, much higher in Italy,” Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea.

“We know we did everything we could to reach the Final. It was close game, a tough game, not easy at all. Argentina played better than usual. Overall I think we might have deserved a little more, but that’s football,” Italy coach Azeglio Vicini.

What happened next?
Italy recovered from their heartbreak to shade England 2-1 in the match for third place, a game in which Schillaci once again scored, the Italian striker thus ending the tournament as its top scorer. This Italy side would form the core of the team that went on to reach the Final of the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, where they lost on penalties to Brazil.

Argentina paid a heavy price for their exertions against the Italians. Shorn of the services of the suspended Giusti, they would also have to do without Caniggia in the Final against West Germany, the blond-haired striker having picked up his second yellow card of the competition in Naples. A tired Albiceleste side failed to fire in the showpiece match and were undone by Andreas Brehme’s late penalty. They have since failed to reach the last four of the FIFA World Cup.