Italia’90: When pitiless Gods denied Chris Waddle greatness in Turin

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 12, 2018

In ‘All Played Out’, the set text on the 1990 World Cup, Pete Davies asked Chris Waddle what he’d be doing if he wasn’t a professional footballer. “Still be working in the sausage factory, I suppose,” Waddle said. “I couldn’t see me getting out of that.”

Waddle looked more like a factory worker than a professional athlete. He always had that slightly hangdog gait, the slumped shoulders of a man pressed into helping his in-laws move house, only to be told that was only the first van: the second would be along in ten minutes.

He looked almost like a reluctant footballer. Until he started playing football, that is. Then he was capable of the most glorious, incongruous skill. His frame hunched over the ball, as if he was trying to keep it close until an opportunity arose to use that left foot. And few could use their left foot like him.

By the time Italia 90 came his talented had been recognised to the tune of £4.5million, Marseille having paid Tottenham what at that stage was the third-highest transfer fee ever. He was the only man in that England squad to play his football outside Britain, a squad nevertheless not short of flair. “At the end of the day, the likes of Gazza, Peter [Beardsley] and myself, John Barnes – we put bums on seats, don’t we?” he told Davies.

Waddle roomed with Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90. The most nightmarish of assignments. At a time when a player is supposed to be entirely focused on his game, concentrating on the biggest month of his life, Waddle basically had to babysit a fabulously talented, 23-year-old toddler.

One night Bobby Robson knocked on their door to check on them, with no answer. Robson assumed they had slipped away for a night on the pop, and was preemptively furious. But Waddle had actually taken Gascoigne on a midnight stroll to burn off some energy, after he simply wouldn’t shut up. ‘How Waddle put up with him as a roommate, I’ll never know,’ wrote Robson in his autobiography.

People remember Gascoigne from that semi-final against West Germany. They remember Waddle too, but mainly for his penalty, the miss that soared into the Turin night, the shot he knew was over the bar the second he leant back and hit it.

But he only had to take that penalty after an earlier moment of cruelty measured by inches, the sort of thing that persuades you football genuinely isn’t a meritocracy.

For the earlier part of the tournament, Waddle had sported the mullet from hell, the haircut of Micky from the League of Gentlemen. But before the semi-final he shaved it off, having been paid £10,000 (money he donated to charity) to have a trim by the Sun.

The freshly shorn Waddle formed part of a midfield that, on paper, looked insane. In the absence of the injured Bryan Robson, England played Waddle, Gascoigne and David Platt in the centre of the pitch. Not for Sir Bobby the protective layer of a defensive midfielder: this was attacking flair, a midfield encouraged to be creative.

Maybe that’s why Waddle felt empowered to chip Bodo Illgner from 45 yards in the first-half. The ball broke to Waddle near the centre-circle, there were sensible options available but like the best mavericks he ignored those and took a shot. It was going in, too. Illgner panicked, expecting nothing of the sort, desperately scrambling back and just tipping the ball onto the bar.

That the referee had blown his whistle after David Platt committed a foul not far from where Waddle struck the ball was immaterial: Waddle didn’t know, and neither did Illgner. ‘It wouldn’t have counted, but that didn’t matter – scaring them like that did no harm…’ wrote Davies.

Football is a game of such inches. The line between success and failure is thin and cruel. A scintilla to the left and everything would have been different. No penalty shoot-out, no tears (or, since Gazza’s yellow card had happened five minutes earlier, fewer tears), no Germany in the final, no ballooned miss way onto the Delle Alpi running track.

That was the preamble. Andreas Brehme via Paul Parker gave West Germany the lead, before Gary Lineker equalised. England were the better team in the first-half and most of extra-time too, and Waddle one of the better players on the pitch. ‘Jesus,’ wrote Davies. ‘You couldn’t bear to watch it – and you couldn’t tear your eyes from it.’

It should never have got to penalties. With seconds left of the first-half in extra-time, the ball reached Waddle on the left side of the penalty area. Perhaps tired legs afforded Waddle the space, but his own didn’t seem that fatigued. He struck a shot with such perfect timing that it must have felt like a cricketer hitting a perfect cover drive, when you don’t feel the ball zipping off the bat.

It was heading just inside the post. But as the ball reached the edge of the six-yard box, it deviated slightly. It’s impossible to tell whether it was swerve, Illgner’s fingertip or the intervention of a pitiless god that altered the trajectory. Whatever happened, rather than nestling in the corner of that billowy, very aesthetically-pleasing net, it smacked off the inside of the post. And stayed out. “I’ve never seen that in any football match ever,” Waddle said, years later.

The phrase “He’s almost hit that too well” is of course a widely-mocked piece of commentary ephemera, but it might actually apply on this occasion. Had Waddle just taken a little bit off the shot, it might have gone in, or it might have bounced off the post in slightly slower. Slow enough for Platt, lurking in the area, to put the rebound in perhaps.

Football is a game of such inches. The line between success and failure is thin and cruel. A scintilla to the left and everything would have been different. No penalty shoot-out, no tears (or, since Gazza’s yellow card had happened five minutes earlier, fewer tears), no Germany in the final, no ballooned miss way onto the Delle Alpi running track.

People remember the miss that decided the penalty shoot-out, that confirmed England would be going home. But you don’t as often see the one that was this far from winning the game and changing English football history. Of course a football match is thousands of tiny moments, each one carrying thousands of separative possible outcomes: the multi-universe theory has its own little annex in football.

But you wonder how things would have panned out differently if that shot had gone in. Part of the wider appeal of Italia 90, we are told, was in the glorious failure, in Gazza’s tears and the heartache of Stuart Pearce and Waddle. The notion that the emotion showed by the players was what kicked off the revolution in English football has always been too reductive, too sentimental even. But it undoubtedly had an impact. What would have been different? Would the nation’s attitude have altered had England won that semi-final? What if they had won the final? Would everything have changed in the same way?

Who can say, but it wasn’t far from being different. Not far at all.

England World Cup 1990
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