Spain 1 (Salinas ’83) Yugoslavia 2 (Stojkovic ’78, ’92)
26th June 1990, Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi
You’re impressionable when you’re young. You believe stupid stuff. You believe anything you’re told or is put in front of you, really. Because you don’t know any better. Eventually, if all goes to plan, you learn more things, filter out as much of the stupid stuff as possible and become an adult.
But when you’re really young, the world is what you can see. It’s your house, or the town you live in: the most important people in the world are your immediate family, or whoever you live with. Because you don’t know any better.
And so it is when you’re first starting to watch football. The world is what you can see. And when you’re that young and impressionable, the players you can see become the best in the world. Because you don’t know any better.
Which is how I came to think of Dragan Stojkovic as the greatest player in the world.
Your favourite World Cup will usually be the one from when you were young and impressionable. For those of us of an age when football from outside our immediate sphere was an exotic and unusual thing, that was Italia 90. Before even Gazzetta or Spanish football on Sky, or even Trans World Sport, the only real time people had to watch football from outside England was every other summer, when an international tournament filled our lives for a blissful month.
If you were born in England in the early 1980s and started watching the game as a child, you didn’t even have European club football on TV. Which is one of the reasons that Italia 90 forms such a significant part of the semi-lucrative nostalgia business.
The other stuff helped. The aesthetics; the kits; the upsets; the undeniably entertaining violence; and of course England. Brave England. It’s easy to forget that England weren’t really any good at Italia 90: the group was negotiated with some difficulty, Belgium were beaten in the 120th minute of the second round and Cameroon absolutely mugged in the quarter-finals.
Still, their progression to the semi-final, Bobby’s little jig and Paul Gascoigne’s tears were enough to enthral a nation and, whether or not you entirely put the modern era’s popularity down to all of that or not, it undeniably had a profound impact.
I was hooked well before all that, though. From the very first game, when Cameroon pulled down Argentina’s pants then gave them a kick in the shins, to Roberto Baggio slaloming a goal for Italy and Jurgen Klinsmann giving the UAE a shoeing: for a seven-year-old in semi-rural Nottinghamshire, it was all so new, colourful, strange and exciting.
It was also gleefully free of context. Sure, I was aware that Francois Oman-Biyik’s header in that opening game was something of a surprise, but really nothing deeper or more accurate than that. This World Cup was all I knew of football beyond England, and realistically beyond Nottingham Forest. Particularly when it came to which players were actually good, and which were just having the summer of their lives.
I had no clue that Toto Schilacci had only been called up to the Italy squad that year, or that Roger Milla had basically given up on top level football and had to be coaxed from a remote Pacific island called Reunion to play for Cameroon, or that Tomas Skuhravy, a fiercely mulleted slab of beef playing up top for Czechoslovakia who scored five goals at the tournament, was not in fact the greatest centre-forward in the world.
What mattered was that these players were in front of me and unimaginably thrilling. No more so than Stojkovic. As it turns out, the seven-year-old me was a proto football hipster, appreciating this genius of the Balkans who had been a key part of a great Red Star Belgrade team. But I loved him because of two goals he scored against Spain, rather than his achievements back home.
The first was a piece of glorious deception, bringing down a cross from the left by making as if to hammer the leather off the ball, before controlling with a feather touch and sending Rafael Martin Vasquez sliding across the six-yard box like a cartoon character who’d slipped on a banana peel.
The second was a free-kick, brilliantly curled over the wall with expert precision. But so casual: he approached the ball as if he was a rugby kicker taking a conversion, returning to the ball to readjust it on the tee, before quickening his last step and whipping the thing past Andoni Zubizarreta. As the run-up begins, you can see Zubizarreta edge towards the corner the ball goes into: he knows what’s coming, but stopping it was a completely different matter.
These were bits of skill that weren’t entirely alien, but were brilliant in an altogether different way than I was used to. They had a grace that I didn’t really recognise, an artistry that wasn’t really encouraged in the pre-Premier League days. If Stojkovic had played in England, he would have been deemed a luxury player, or a fancy type not to be trusted. Boy, was I glad he didn’t, that he remained exotic, enigmatic and almost entirely confined to Italia 90.
After the World Cup, the VHS of every goal of Italia 90 – not unreasonably called ‘Every Goal of Italia 90’ – narrated by the gentle scholarly authority of Brian Moore, was played until the tape went thin and seared everything into my brain. It’s impossible to think of Stojkovic or Schillaci or Milla or Skuhravy without hearing Moore’s smooth tones, feeding odd bits of information and appraisal.
Stojkovic went on to have a successful later career as a player and a manager, even if it was tinged with a sense of what might have been. His time at Marseille, after a big move there in the summer of 1990, was beset by injuries and the international ban on Yugoslavia during the war meant he didn’t play internationally as much as he should have done. That World Cup too, was a slight disappointment.
“We finished practically as the fifth-best team at the World Cup,” he told the Blizzard a few years ago. “That was already a good result but we had a chance to do something more.”