Italia 90, the year we all believed…eventually. Comedian, Jojo Smith, remembers one summer in 1990.
In 1990 I was a proper yuppie, a journalist on the Evening Standard running around the coolest of clubs, partying like it was nine years hence. I was 29 and in my prime. Football held no interest for me, but even I started to pay attention.
Initially our English cynicism had us all convinced that we’d be on the next plane home, that our team/kit/manager were dreadful. At that time, England fans had a terrible reputation worldwide so if the team didn’t blow it, fans surely would.
Every newspaper had sent their finest muckrakers to report solely on the violence the ‘hooligans’ were bound to indulge in. The fear was so great that every town in Italy where England were going to play would be under a ‘booze ban’.
After the first couple of matches though, things began to change. Our hooligans hadn’t torched the Vatican or anything, and England were progressing through the rounds. Slowly but surely a wave of optimism began to sweep over the country.
The next match would be against Cameroon in Naples on Sunday July 1. I asked Will if he was serious about going to the next game. He said he was.
Soon even I wanted to watch these games. My local was the bar of a recording studio in Fulham, where my mate Will worked. That’s how on Wednesday 26 June 1990 as England were showing Belgium who was boss, someone came up with one of those daft ideas that seems like a good plan but usually comes to naught. “If England win, we should all go to the next match” said the wise one, and we all agreed. All 30 of us.
Well, England did win. The next match would be against Cameroon in Naples on Sunday July 1. I asked Will if he was serious about going to the next game. He said he was. So was his mate Clem. So was I. Out of 30 wannabes we got three ‘will-doers’.
The next two days were spent booking flights and finding somewhere to stay. Naples was all booked up for accommodation but with the help of my paper’s travel editor I found us a room in a hotel an hour away in Sorrento, Hotel Majestic Palace.
I wasn’t phased about sharing a room with those two, when I worked for Dexys I often found myself sharing with one or two members of the band, for purely economic reasons you understand!
By 2pm Saturday 30th June we were in Naples. The relative calm of the flight did nothing to prepare us for the madness ahead. We reclaimed our bags and set about hiring a car to drive to Sorrento. None of us spoke a word of Italian, and I didn’t even drive, but somehow we managed to procure a little Fiat (naturally) and off we went on our adventure.
Clem wanted to drive but an attempt to pull out of the airport car park freaked him out, so it was down to Willy-boy to embrace the insanity. I was map-reader, so I got upgraded to the front seat, and Clembo was left to sit in the back flinching at the near misses and muttering to himself.
I’m a calm passenger, but even I was tested as we headed out into the traffic. The only driving rules in Naples is there are no rules! People park up in the middle lane, the cacophony of horns pomping so loud thinking was impossible, the car in front just stopping with no warning because they had spotted a friend across the street; all kinds of madness.
Will just steeled himself and we found our way to the stadium, where we bought our tickets for the game. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we headed out of town on the A2 Naples to Rome motorway. How glamourous does that sound? Way better than the A2 London to Dover motorway that’s for sure!
The waiters were trying to decide if we were some of the fabled “ooligaaaaans” they’d been reading about, when in truth we looked like three accountants.
The drive was beautiful, half of it coastal road, and the blue of the Mediterranean did its usual trick of looking fake it was so vivid. We passed Mount Vesuvius which thankfully didn’t erupt and spill its lava on us, and we revelled in the beauty of the Amalfi Coast.
Sorrento looked like a movie set, and our hotel, perched on the side of the mountain even more so. I was expecting Marcello Mastroianni to be strolling in the grounds as we pulled in. It was magnificent and our balcony view out to the sea really was spellbinding. Capri lay just to the right, like a jewel. Of course all any of us knew about the island back then was that Gracie Fields lived there.
Our Saturday night consisted of a stroll into town where we feasted on seafood and pasta. The waiters were trying to decide if we were some of the fabled “ooligaaaaans” they’d been reading about, when in truth we looked like three accountants.
We sat outside sipping our ‘proper’ cappuccinos – this was only 1990 remember – and watched the night unfold. Gorgeous Italian men and women zipping about on immaculate Vespas, flirting like crazy, straight out of cliche central! Even a few elderly Señoras, head to toe in black, passing judgement on them.
Tucked up in my bed on the other side of the room, I listened to the snores and other unpleasant sounds coming from my partners in crime and vowed only to return with a lover. This place was too romantic to stay with ‘the lads’.
Seconds from kick-off we found a parking spot. Inside the stadium the atmosphere was immense. I’d never felt so English – in a good way – before.
Sunday was match day, but not until the evening, so it was a day of sunbathing and a lunch of pizza and gelato, before we hit the road back into Napoli.
Nobody warned us that Saturday’s simple journey would be the road to hell on a Sunday afternoon! Every lorry in Italy seemed to be on that motorway and we found ourselves in an Italian version of Spielberg’s Duel.
Seconds from kick-off we found a parking spot. Inside the stadium the atmosphere was immense. I’d never felt so English – in a good way – before. The singing of the England fans, Cameroon’s supporters – the majority of whom looked remarkably Italian – banging drums and singing right back at us. It truly was ecstatic.
I won’t bother with a match report, but two things stuck out; the penalties scored by well known crisp salesman Gary Lineker. Even I shed a tear.
We drove back in a haze of glory. By midnight we were parked up and having a nightcap in a cafe near the hotel. We sipped on cold Peroni’s, and discussed the game with the staff, when in walked one of my Evening Standard colleagues. He was a photographer sent out to capture any of the devastation wreaked by the “ooligaaaans” on film. The closest he came was a snap of us devouring the sandwiches in that cafe.
He joined us and then, being one of Fleet Street’s finest, it hit him that I’d be in the office on Tuesday. “If I bring over my expenses before you check out tomorrow, can you hand them in for me?” And with those words, the spell was broken.
I’ve yet to return, but as soon as my prince turns up, I’ll be back.
They think its all over… It’s not yet: