REVIEW BY JIM KEOGHAN – @jimmykeo
Whether it’s Roger Milla’s wiggling hips, Toto Schillaci’s look of unbridled joy or Gazza’s tears, most of us who were around at the time have our abiding memories of Italia 90. Perhaps more than any other World Cup it has lodged in the collective consciousness; four weeks that seemed to emotionally connect with people in a way that no other World Cup has since.
Simon Hart’s latest book, World in Motion, provides the inside story of this iconic tournament. And it’s a welcome addition to other explorations, largely because Hart embraces an international perspective. Too often, Italia 90 is viewed in this country through an English prism, one that shows us Lineker’s penalties against Cameroon, Bobby Robson dancing on the touchline against Belgium, and Chris Waddle’s space-bound penalty against the Germans. Hart goes beyond this narrow perspective, embracing a broad range of those involved.
Although not every nation is covered in detail (which might have made for a more laborious read), those that feature are explored in depth, giving the reader not just an insight into each country’s experience of the tournament itself but also the cultural, political and historical factors that had shaped their football journey to that point (and would go on to shape it beyond).
Fittingly, as this tournament coincided with the political upheaval taking place in eastern Europe, countries such as Romania, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia catch the interest of Hart’s eye. These chapters are amongst the book’s strongest, as Hart captures the sense of a system (both political and in terms of football) unspooling, the loss of certainty and the way in which the change would impact on domestic and international football in the years to follow.
One of the strongest aspect of Hart’s writing, both in these chapters and others, is his use of memories from those who were around at the time. The amount and range of interviewees amassed is quite incredible. And each one feels relevant. There is no sense of their inclusion representing some kind of crow-barred attempt to sprinkle the writing with ‘big names’. Their memories weave their way seamlessly into the narrative, providing insight and entertainment throughout.
My particular favourite comes from Benjamin Massing, the Cameroon centre-half, who frankly – and with pride – recalls his deliberate pole-axing of Claudio Caniggia in the opening game against Argentina. His joyful recollection of coming at Caniggia ‘like a truck’ as he was through on goal was wonderful, as too was his apparent indifference to the inevitable red card that followed.
Moments such as these have often slipped from the collective consciousness as more popular memories from the tournament have taken centre stage. Hart excels as exploring these small moments, using his vast array of interviewees to build a much richer exploration of what it was like to be at this World Cup.
But, at the same time, he does not shy away from the iconic times, the key scenes that have seared themselves into our minds. Think of an image that you have from Italia 90 and World in Motion will explore it in detail.
Hart, as he proved with his debut book Here We Go, is a wonderful writer. In another’s hands, even a subject matter so alive with possibilities as this might have resulted in just another ‘run of the mill’ football book. But World in Motion is not just beautifully written, genuinely engaging and evocative of the time, it also explores what was happening beyond that which took place on the pitch.
Aside from borrowing from New Order’s much-loved England song, the title of the book perfectly captures what Hart’s work illustrates so deftly, that the football world was truly in ‘motion’ during this time.
The 1990s is rightly seen as a transformative decade for football, one that witnessed the end, both domestically and elsewhere in the world, of a model that had dominated since the war. Football felt more domestic back then, less international than it is today. It was more conservative, less open to new ideas. And both in style and substance, a lineage could still be traced to the game’s origins, as though in many parts of the world the game had barely changed since the 1880s.
‘Modern Football’, which emerged in the 1990s, is a completely different animal, one characterised by money, razzamatazz and people eating hotdogs at half time. And this new animal can trace its roots back to Italia 90, which from a distance can seem like a watershed moment, the time when the sport threw off its shackles and started the process that would see it become something new.
Some of this change was a result of wider political shifts, such as the end of the Soviet Union and its influence in Eastern Europe. Other aspects were caused by countries, such as the USA, embracing the sport. And lastly there was the cultural change that took place both within and without the sport.
Hart covers all of the above but perhaps captures this last element best. At some indefinable point in the early 1900s, football became a different sport. Commercialisation and money arrived, the problem of hooliganism dissipated and the game’s reputation as a declining pastime largely confined to the working classes also went away. In short, football became savvy and it became cool. Along with providing an in-depth exploration of one of world football’s most iconic tournaments, Hart beautifully captures the sense of a sport in cultural transition, a sport in the process of emerging from its chrysalis, a sport in ‘motion’.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The World Cup might make its reading timely but really, for anyone with an interest in how the game that we love became the game that it is today, World in Motion is indispensable.