What Italia '90 means to the England side of South Africa 2010

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From Gazza's tears to Waddle's miss, many current players cite a match against Germany as their first inspiration.

Of the 23 members of the current England squad, 16 were born between the years of 1978 and 1982.

Like any closely defined generation, there are shared memories, common influences. They are children of the Margaret Thatcher era, brought up during the last days of English football in its pre-Premier League days. And overwhelmingly and poignantly this weekend, they speak of one tournament, one man, and one particular match as their first memory of the World Cup: Italia '90, Paul Gascoigne, England v West Germany.

Over the years, hearing them speak of their memories of that period, and reading accounts in autobiographies and interviews, it is remarkable how much of their memories centre on Gascoigne, and the tears he wept when he was booked during that semi-final. If one moment sealed the current generation's boyhood devotion to football, it has to be that night in Turin. It gave them a hero and the belief that an English footballer could be among the best in the world.

The 20th anniversary of the semi-final defeat falls a week on Sunday. This year also sees the 40th anniversary of England's defeat to West Germany in Mexico. That is ancient history for these players but the symmetry of the 1990 dates and circumstances will not, surely, have been lost on them as they travel to Bloemfontein tomorrow.

All the talk of penalty shoot-outs this week, from Jermain Defoe and David James among others, is surely no coincidence. That night was the first of England's 12-yard nightmares, since repeated against Germany in 1996. There are other parallels. England began the tournament badly, with a leaden draw against the Republic of Ireland, and a marginally better one against Holland before a nervous win against Egypt edged them into the knockout stages.

England had talented, famous players, many of whom had experience of previous World Cups, but they found it equally hard to produce their best form, scraping past Belgium with a last-minute goal by David Platt, then scraping past Cameroon with two late penalties from Gary Lineker. Gascoigne did not begin the tournament with the same expectations on his shoulders as those weighing on Rooney but by the time England met Germany he was utterly central to the campaign. He had the same combination of desire, skill and combustible temperament as Rooney, but also a cherubic look that meant he won people's hearts in a way that perhaps Rooney never will.

After this World Cup, the next generation that comes to represent England will not have the same memories of Gascoigne. Rooney, who was only four years old when Gascoigne played at that tournament, identifies Michael Owen's goal against Argentina in 1998 as his first World Cup memory.

For players such as James Milner and Joe Hart, Gascoigne is more likely to be remembered as the sad, tortured figure he became once he finished playing – just as the perception of George Best changed for the subsequent generations who had never seen him play.

Tomorrow, for many of the most famous players in the current England team, when they play Germany, we must expect that the occasion will spark old memories of the day they first fell under the spell of World Cup football. Will it lift them up as an inspiration, or weigh heavily upon them if they are called upon to make the slow walk to the penalty spot? Watch closely tomorrow afternoon and you might just find out.

How England's current players remember Italia '90

Steven Gerrard (who was 10 at the time of the 1990 World Cup)

Italia ’90 was special as I thought the boys did really well. Although they weren’t one of the favourites they kept beating teams, which was such an achievement. I was a big fan of Paul Gascoigne and really enjoyed watching him play. With Gazza’s inspiration we made a heroic effort to get to the semis and he was a hero to me. I’ll always remember him crying and I think I was nearly as upset as he was watching at home.

Gazza at Italia 90. Gazza taking on the world. Skill, determination, love of the shirt, cheeky smile. The whole package, the real deal. Gazza summed up everything I worshipped about football … in my early days at Liverpool, people considered me as a defensive midfielder, but in training I was always trying to be Gazza. I play more like Gazza today than when I first started. I am nowhere near as skilful as him, but I have things he never had, like endurance.

[When I met Gascoigne] I thought, ‘Let me talk about you! I want to hear about Italia 90, Lazio, Spurs, everything!’ when I was younger, Gazza’s was the only autograph I craved. You see, Gazza lived the life I wanted: fame, fortune and England.

Jermain Defoe (seven at the time)

My favourite World Cup? I like Italia ‘90, because, obviously, of the impact that Gazza made. I think that was, like, he came back a national hero. I remember 1990 and the penalties and Gazza crying. There are so many memories in my head. But, because of the record against Germany, you don’t want to think about what happened

Matthew Upson (11 at the time)

I remember the tournament really well, I was 11-years-old at the time, it was that age for me of just watching and playing football non stop. The World Cup was a really big event for me at that time and I watched every game. I remember the tournament very strongly and England did really well and got a lot of praise for how well they did, so I’d love to be in a similar position.

Gareth Barry (nine at the time)

I remember 1990 well - I was nine. Gazza made the headlines and he was my hero, being an old Spurs fan as well. I remember having the wall chart, writing down results. I felt heavily involved, watching all the games and being up for the England ones

Michael Carrick (seven at the time)

I was a massive Gazza fan and I had the No19 shirt. I’ve still got it somewhere. I think my mother has kept it. Italia ’90 was the first World Cup I could remember. I would probably have expected England to have won it because I expected them to win everything then.

Joe Cole (eight at the time)

The 1990 World Cup was the first tournament I watched. I can remember when Gazza got booked. The history between the two countries is immense.

Peter Crouch (nine at the time)

Gazza was the main man for me. He was fantastic, the greatest England player ever. I was close to tears when he began to cry at Italia ’90. He’d left Tottenham by the time I arrived [as a trainee] but he was always a hero. He had something different, that’s what made him so exciting. He made me want to play football.

The 1990 World Cup made a massive impression of me - I’ve still got the VHS video at home. I was nine and in love with the game. I remember all those incredible goals from Salvatore Schillaci and Roger Milla, and the one when Roberto Baggio ran half the pitch against Czechoslovakia. I watched that again and again.

During the 1990 semi-final with Germany my dad was screaming at the telly.

It was so dramatic. Whatever he was doing, I was doing. We went through all the emotions. That year was as close as England have come.

Stuart Pearce (28 at the time, played left-back for England at Italia ’90. Missed the penultimate penalty in the shoot-out. Now part of Fabio Capello’s staff)

[In 1990] we probably weren’t particularly fluent in the group stages, got better as it went on and the longer we were in the tournament the more the confidence grew within the camp, the standard of play improved. Our best performance of the tournament probably came against Germany in the semi-final. I’ve walked this road before, and it might be a case of passing on those little gems of wisdom on to the players of the next generation.

David James (19 at the time)

“Where was I [when England lost to Germany in 1990]? I was in a pub with a mate drinking an orange juice.”

Additional reporting by Taymour Gabraly

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