Offbeat stories from 1990 World Cup told with flair in ‘Echoes of an Italian Summer’

A new book revealing stories from the build-up to Italia ’90 and the aftermath of the tournament is reviewed by Eric Brown...


Another book on Italia ’90 might seem a tad unnecessary.

There’s already enough literature on the subject to pack bookshelves, with Pete Davies’ All Played Out and Simon Hart’s World in Motion charting everything you could need to know about a tournament widely regarded as the first World Cup of the modern era.

Yet Echoes of an Italian Summer takes a different approach. Author Paul Grech only mentions the tournament itself in passing, preferring to focus on the build-up to it and the aftermath.

So we meet again the wild-eyed and diminutive Toto Schillaci, who started the competition as a benchwarmer and finished it as an Italian icon.

Schillaci’s goals time and again sparked scenes of wild celebration by scooter riders hooting and screeching round cobbled Italian streets partially blinded by pillion passengers waving national flags.

Palermo-born Schillaci became one of the most unlikely World Cup heroes. Just 12 months before the tournament began, he was playing in Serie B for Messina and his inclusion in the Italy squad raised eyebrows.

Now he ranks alongside Pele, Beckenbauer, Charlton, Cruyff and the rest as a World Cup star.

Yet he appears on this stage only briefly as Grech reveals the twists of fate which made Toto a household name and left his cousin Maurizio in obscurity.

Maurizio, regularly judged to be the more talented player, seemed destined for the World Cup at one point but football’s fortunes turned against him with injuries, club managerial changes and a series of disastrous personal decisions combining to scupper his chances. A cautionary tale indeed.

Even more unlikely perhaps than Toto’s emergence among the great was that of Roger Milla, a striker called out of retirement by Cameroon and whose age was estimated between 36 and 42.

Milla’s goals, celebrated with corner flag-circling intensity, propelled outsiders Cameroon to a tumultuous quarter-final meeting with England and caught the imagination of the world.

How he got there and what happened to Milla afterwards is among the highlights of this book.

Competing for attention are Grech’s well-researched histories of how Italy prepared grounds for the competition and what happened to them afterwards.

Anyone approaching the newly constructed stadium at Bari for the first time, especially at night, could be rendered jaw-droppingly static. The enormous circular building sported lights inside and out all around the top making it resemble a cross between an alien spaceship and an ELO album cover

That first glimpse is certainly one of my indelible Italia ’90 memories. All sorts of innovations were installed but the project ran seriously over-budget.

Sadly the cash could not be found to maintain high stadium standards after the competition and it began to disintegrate before being pulled down for safety reasons.

Grech discovered a mass of red tape affected stadium preparations. Many of the stadia were local authority-owned so councillors wanted a say in how they were developed alongside the Italian FA, World Cup officials and the hosting clubs.

Even the Italian athletics federation got in on the act by insisting tracks should be included in renovation or building plans. These were usually installed cheaply of poor materials, hardly used afterwards and created a gulf between players and fans.

The San Siro became a skyscraper with an extra tier creating plenty of new seats and more jaw-dropping moments for those making an initial visit.

Yet little attention was given to an already poor quality pitch which declined further as the lofty new stands cut out badly needed sunlight and wind from already withering grass. The pitch had to be relayed several times.

Grech has excavated a wealth of offbeat stories like these in a thoroughly readable new look at the 1990 World Cup.

Echoes of an Italian Summer by Paul Grech is published by Pitch Publishing, price £14.99.

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