An article in the Independent of 10 July was headed with these remarkable words: ‘Patrick Barclay reflects on a World Cup which was largely lacking in drama, individual dynamism and moments to cherish in the memory.’ This is not a description of the World Cup that I have been watching. But it is a good description of the coverage of the football which was offered by Patrick Barclay, by other British journalists, and by experts and commentators who were heard from on television. The 1990 World Cup produced, as it was bound to, its disappointments, patches of dullness and travesties of justice. It was doubtfully regulated and often poorly refereed. But its best stuff was enthralling, and as an occasion in the history of the human race its interest was first-rate. No one team was a match for the Brazilians of 1970 and before, but the Italians were among the most skilful and beautiful sides ever to grace the world game: the true winners of the cup, in my opinion, let down at the last by a lack of aggression and brute force, and of the luck that was so lavishly bestowed elsewhere.
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Vol. 12 No. 16 · 30 August 1990
Karl Miller’s passionate World Cup comments in the London Review of Books (LRB, 26 July) were, in some cases, highly valid ones, and in others, decidedly not. As a busy television viewer, presumably in the cosy confines of a Chelsea study, Mr Miller was right to debunk some of the less savoury aspects of the coverage offered by the British press and television teams – for instance, the soppy U-turn made by the tabloids once England had reached the quarter-finals. He was right to stress how Italia 90 at its best ‘was enthralling, and as an occasion in the history of the human race its interest was first-rate.’ He was also right to single out the paucity of refereeing, and the positive consequences of England at last playing a sweeper. But in my view, that of a correspondent who has covered five successive World Cups ‘live’, Mr Miller was guilty of a few premature penalty-area dives in his haste to overpraise and overknock some games and certain performers. The Italian World Cup was certainly full of drama, but lacked overall brilliance. The Italians were not a great side: they played some exceptional football, but were too often victims of their own hideous nerves, and of dubious tactical changes. Beating the United States and the Republic of Ireland by single goals were hardly world-class achievements.
West Germany were certainly the best team in the tournament despite Mr Miller’s moody doubts: he did not mention Andreas Brehme, the finest raiding full-back in the competition, or Lothar Mattheus, superb as a goal-scorer against Yugoslavia. Jurgen Klinsmann played two games for the West Germans in the tournament’s best match against Holland. Why Mr Miller chose to stress the Italy-Uruguay match is strange: Uruguay frustrated, but they didn’t play. Once or twice, Mr Miller must have found the comforts of his own study, instead of the harsh realities of a Neapolitan press box, too sleep-making to handle. West Germany played Czechoslovakia, not Yugoslavia, in the quarter-final.
Paul Gascoigne deserved some, if not all, of Miller’s lavish praises. He played well in the later stages, and certainly charmed a great many English female television-watchers with his wisecracks and tears – women, in many cases, who didn’t know the difference between a football and a tangerine. He still has to prove he is a really great player, and needs another season with Spurs before he will convince the Italians he is. There were one or two occasions when I saw him playing for Spurs last season when he did his best to imitate a butcher with a hangover, studs to the fore. In Italy, it was good to see him playing within the rules of the game.
Finally, your television critic was less than fair about the reporting of the Independent’s Patrick Barclay. Mr Barclay, like Mr Miller, is a Scot: no mention was made by Mr Miller of that country’s premature exit, but Mr Barclay certainly found space to mention that humiliation in some of his superb pieces. The lack of drama at the Scotland-Brazil match was one example of the tournament’s many let-downs. Watching soccer on the box is very different from covering it from a simmering press box. Poor Mr Barclay couldn’t win.