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In the summer of 1990, I was given a Panini album accompanied by numerous packets of stickers to adorn the pages inside. Looking back, it was probably my first piece of football memorabilia, or fan item if you like, that I was given.

My uncle bought it for me, but as a four-year-old, I’ll be honest, Italia 90 wasn’t something that I truly understood or knew anything about. That being said, it was one of the first efforts, albeit small, to hook me into the fabulous world of our beloved game.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve become something of a sucker for keeping things (hoarding is what my wife calls it, but hey, we all know there is a difference between hoarding and collecting; right?) So, as I looked to start this piece, I thought I’d dig the album out for the first time in probably a decade.

The first thing that struck me was the brilliant cover artwork. The brightness of the colour palette, the images of each country’s national flag. Almost immediately, I’m drawn to the two players in the centre heading into a crunching tackle. They both wear black Puma football boots. The two contest for an old school black and white panelled match ball. The words Italia 90, and World Cup are quite rightly, up at the top, taking centre stage. In the bottom left corner is the tournament mascot, Ciao, a sort of candy-stick footballer in the colours of the Italian flag, complete with football as his head. Ciao has become synonymous with the World Cup of 1990. I can feel that the album is pure nostalgia in my hands, and I am yet to turn a single page.

Excitedly, as I open the album and begin looking through, I see images of Roma’s Giuseppe Giannini, Nicola Berti of Inter, Milan’s Carlo Ancelotti and Fernando De Napoli, curiously of Napoli; the only four Italian players that I have managed to collect. The powerful image of the word ‘Italia’ stares back at me, dominating the page. Italy’s kit is that easily recognisable brilliant blue colour, completing the look of the famous Azzurri. I wonder what the pages would look like if they were full. A sense of sadness washes over me as I realise that sticker number 53, the Divine Ponytail, Roberto Baggio, remains empty.

I carry on through the pages, flicking past Austria and on to Czechoslovakia. Ludek Miklosko, anyone? Space for player number 128 seems to be the biggest void I’ve encountered so far; one Diego Armando Maradona. I curse my four-year-old self for not seeking out the great man’s Panini sticker 31 years ago! I go on through Costa Rica and Cameroon, who lit up the tournament giving England an almighty scare in the Quarter-Final. Bebeto, Romario and Careca represent Brazil; and at the other end of the spectrum, the likes of Alan McInally and Maurice Malpas fly the flag for Scotland; Moller, Klinsmann and Voller for the then West Germans. Jose Baquero stares back at me on the pages of Spain; what a player the former Barcelona man was. I carry on past Uruguay and reach England. Shilton, Woods, Parker and Stevens are all that I have to show for my efforts here. There is no image of Butcher or Lineker. There is no Paul Gascoigne.

As I move on, four Irish faces look back at me, Messrs Aldridge, Sheedy, Cascarino and Galvin, curiously none of whom were born on the Emerald Isle. The back cover advertises a series of Sportstars figures for sale. Action figures in fact, immortalizing the world’s biggest football players. Ruud Gullit is the star Kenner Toys have used to promote their range. I remember that I still have some of my own tucked away in the loft space, and remind myself again that yes indeed, I am a collector and not a hoarder.

I have spent ten minutes letting my mind wander; losing myself in the wonder and nostalgia of what I now know was a tournament that left an indelible mark in football’s history. ‘Toto’ Schillaci’s goals. Diego Maradona being Diego Maradona, starring once again, this time in the Semi-Final against hosts Italy, in Naples of all places. Gazza’s tears and England’s almost inevitable Semi-Final failure on penalties. Luciano Pavarotti and Nessun Dorma. West Germany’s ultimate triumph, as Andreas Brehme stroked in the winning goal from the penalty spot to seal their third crown. Despite coming away empty-handed, without doubt, Italy had hosted one of the most memorable World Cups ever to be staged. Italia 90 would live long in the memory.

My own first memories, and connection to Italy in a footballing sense, came from those Panini album pages. Obviously at four years of age I have scant, if any, recollection of the tournament that summer. Nessun Dorma still seems to resonate with me today though. It wasn’t until a football show; one that has now reached cult status among the football fraternity when first rising onto our TV screens in 1992, that suddenly propelled Serie A and the Italian game into the living rooms of fans up and down Britain, that my footballing life would dramatically change. In fact, all our lives would change. That show was Channel Four’s Gazzetta Football Italia.

The introduction to the show has itself become hugely iconic, Football Italia’s opening credits have become synonymous with Italian football in the 90s. I loved the fact that during that intro, not only did Channel 4 transform their own logo in the colours of the Italian flag, but that same logo came to life to seemingly perform a clearing header; all on its own. It was truly magical stuff, somewhat cutting edge at the time.

Saturday’s edition of Football Italia kicked off with young, fresh-faced presenter James Richardson, usually sat outside of an Italian café, cappuccino and pastries adorning his table; the day’s newspapers spread out ready for his perusal and ultimate translation of the football back pages to us, the eagerly awaiting viewer. The Saturday show also reviewed the previous week’s matches, with the legendary broadcaster Kenneth Wolstenholme bringing us bang up to date with all things Serie A. It was light-hearted and humorous, yet serious and hugely informative at the same time. I remember casual and fun interviews with star players, including Paul Gascoigne during his time in Rome with Lazio.

Voiced by the brilliant Peter Brackley, I loved the live games on Sundays. As a youngster I was fascinated with these stars that were suddenly lighting up our living room TV sets. Gabriel Batistuta, Luis Oliveira and Rui Costa. Fonseca and Aldair of Roma. Baggio, Del Piero, Lombardo, Casiraghi, Signori, Ravanelli, Di Livio, Zola, Desailly, Costacurta, Maldini and Baresi. The list goes on. The managerial legends of Capello, Lippi and Trappatoni, giants of the Italian game.

Often feted as the greatest man to pick up a whistle and officiate at the highest level, referee Pierluigi Collina even became a household name. As a youngster, I always found it curious that Englishmen like David Platt and Paul Ince, played in Italy for Sampdoria and Inter respectively. Even some of the kits from the time have become hugely sought after by football fans. There also were some incredible keepers that fascinated me; Pagliuca, Peruzzi, Rossi and Bucci, all great characters, and it was during these matches that I learned the phrase ‘camera save.’

If ever any one game or piece of play can encapsulate those halcyon days in Serie A, it comes in the shape of George Weah’s mesmeric goal for Milan against Verona in 1996. I, like many others, will never forget the Liberian running the length of the San Siro pitch, jinking and gliding past the opposition, before powering on to despatch the ball into the bottom corner past a hapless keeper. It remains a truly sensational strike. Peter Brackley’s dulcet tones provide the perfect backdrop for such an iconic goal. It was an extraordinary effort from Weah, leaving an indelible mark on not only on the Italian league, but the whole of the watching football world.

Football Italia brought live games onto terrestrial television years before saturation coverage set in. You really can have too much of a good thing, even football! The show helped raise the profile of the Italian game on British shores, with its packed stadia and atmospheric crowds. Serie A was arguably the best domestic league in world football at the time, and that dominance carried on into the European game. From 1992 until 1998, there was an Italian representative in each UEFA Champions League Final. Milan and Juventus reached three finals, winning one each, and Sampdoria lost to Barcelona in ’92 at Wembley. The UEFA Cup was much the same. Between 1989 and 1999, of the competition’s 22 finalists, 13 of them were Italian clubs. There was a single win for Napoli, two for both Parma and Juventus and an incredible three triumphs for Inter. This really was a golden era for Italian club football on both the domestic and European stages.

I watched a documentary last year on Football Italia, with the producers of the show admitting that they didn’t think it would work, harbouring massive reservations. They were therefore totally unprepared for its success and the cult audience that followed. Quite simply, the format did indeed work, and the football public lapped it up. It became essential weekend viewing. I saw James Richardson presenting The World’s Strongest Man on the TV recently, and he looked somewhat incomplete to me without a coffee and a pile of newspapers. I guess its not the same interviewing 20 stone man-mountains as it is Gianluca Vialli!

The advent of the English Premier League in 1992 changed the shape of football in this country dramatically. Coupled with broadcasting giant Sky Sports, English football has become the ultimate money-making juggernaut. The money that Sky have pumped into the game has twisted and morphed our national sport into something that it was never meant to be. It no longer feels the game of the working class, with exorbitant transfer fees, eye-watering player salaries and increasingly rocketing ticket prices alienating the man on the street. It is perhaps a whole other debate for another time. What the new rebranded top tier did attract to these shores, was the greatest of foreign footballing talent, and it seemed that the top stars from Italy’s Serie A were first in the queue to seek a new, even bigger life in England.

As Juventus conquered Europe when winning the Champions League by beating Ajax in 1996, it seemed almost inconceivable that stars such as Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli would depart The Old Lady for pastures new; but that is exactly what happened that summer. Vialli joined Chelsea, and Ravanelli headed somewhat surprisingly for Middlesbrough in the ever-growing cosmopolitan Premier League. Ruud Gullit had left Sampdoria a year earlier to take up the player-manager role at Stamford Bridge and embarked on something of a revolution at Chelsea. Later that year, Parma’s Gianfranco Zola would join Gullit and Vialli; a signing that would prove to be the catalyst for a trophy laden period at the club. Zola would cement himself as both a club and Premier League legend, and he was arguably the first true Italian superstar to ply his trade on English shores. His legacy should be held on a pedestal as high as Eric Cantona’s, in terms of the impact they had on our game.

Up in the North-East, Ravanelli would smash 31 goals for Middlesbrough during the 1996/97 season, bringing with him that now famous goal celebration. It wasn’t enough for ‘Boro to evade the drop and Ravanelli would depart for France in the shape of Marseille. Make no mistake though, the wheels had been set in motion. The seed had been planted. Football in this country was evolving at a huge pace. Roberto Di Matteo, Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio among others made moves to England. Change was coming. English football was undergoing extensive renovation, a new evolutionary process was being undertaken. It was the boys from Italy that had lit the touch paper, blazing a trail to the Premier League. The rest as they say, is history.

Despite the defection of some of the league’s top stars to England, Serie A remained a hugely strong domestic force. In the years that followed, Italian clubs were still able to flex their own financial muscle to recruit top overseas talent. Hernan Crespo, who was already at Parma, left to join Lazio in 2000. According to website, the fee was a reported £51.13m. Gianluigi Buffon, regarded by many as the greatest goalkeeper the game has ever produced, also left Parma a year later for Juventus, the Old Lady paying £47.6m for his services. Gaizka Mendieta joined Lazio from Valencia for £43.2m, and Pavel Nedved also moved to Juventus for £41.5m. There are other huge transfer deals from this time, and many of them still feature in the top 15 fees paid featuring an Italian club twenty years later. These were player values that the football world had never witnessed. It was clear that as well as the English Premier League, there was no shortage of cash available to the top clubs in the upper echelons of the Italian game. Money it seemed, was the key to success.

Such spending power was so unsustainable, looking back, it was almost frightening. More recently, astronomical transfer fees have returned when we look at the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo, and Matthijs De Ligt, but that has been in keeping with the rest of Europe’s top leagues. The match-fixing scandal that rocked the game some 15 years ago, seeing Juventus being relegated to Serie B and stripped of their 2004/05 title, almost pressed the reset button on the Italian game. Italian football has not been immune from incident and scandal. There was an air of inevitability surrounding the finances at top clubs, leading to a hugely dark period for Serie A.

When I recline in my favourite armchair and contemplate what the Italian game really means to me, I am of course drawn to my aforementioned childhood memories. That is how my relationship with Italy, its famous clubs, its national team and players began. Football Italia gave me a gateway into a vibrant and all-compassing world. Italian football ticked every box. It became exciting, dynamic, and addictive to watch. As I have grown older, the history of the game has become of huge interest to me. The birth of the Association game in England with an established set of rules, the introduction of the most famous competition in the world, the FA Cup, and the phenomenal success of our league structure. We have given our game and our ideas to the world; it has evolved, with each nation wrapping our national sport in their own unique culture; displaying their own versions of the game on their own football pitches to their own adoring supporters. It is why fans travel to all corners of the globe to sample the atmospheres and match day experiences in different leagues and tournaments. The Italians have always been central to that.

As manager, Vittorio Pozzo won two World Cups for Italy in 1934 and 1938. Sandwiched in between, was an Olympic triumph in Berlin in 1936, one of the 8 Italian gold medals achieved that summer. Forward Giuseppe Meazza, Italy’s first footballing star, was at the forefront of those successes. I can also think of Alessandro Mazzola (left), a player who spent an entire career at Inter throughout the 1960s and 70s, earning 70 international caps for the Azzurri and winning the 1968 Euros. If ever a single figure can define a country’s entire era, Mazzola was that man.

1982 saw Italy win their third World Cup crown, captained by legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff and led by inspirational striker Paolo Rossi. The Milan side of Maldini, Costacurta, Baresi, Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten dominated Europe. Andrea Pirlo is one of the most cultured midfielders that Italy has ever produced. We have simply run out of superlatives to describe the great man. After retirement, his on-field absence is of great sadness to the football connoisseur. The history of the game of any nation should not be devalued or dismissed. History is the very foundations that clubs and their subsequent legacies are built on. Italy’s football pedigree is undoubtedly up there with the best. I expect that to remain the case for years to come. There are many more chapters to be written. These are the things that makes Italian football so special to me.

The world itself is dealing with change. Football has not been immune from what has invaded and disrupted our daily lives. It has affected us all. We have all taken a different outlook at life. There have been hugely testing times. Rest assured, we have each other to steer us through these choppy waters. In many ways, we have football to help navigate us on the most difficult of journeys. The end is in sight. Football will undoubtedly help us get through, bringing us excitement, hope and joy as domestic seasons reach their climax and new campaigns begin. Football is a welcome distraction for us all, it always has been. Come to think of it, I’d be eternally grateful if can anyone help me source a Giuseppe Bergomi for the album? Or a Ciro Ferrara? I may as well start somewhere. Let’s bring the Azzurri of 1990 to life. After all, it is collecting and not hoarding. Right?

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