Here we go again on the World Cup finals roller coaster, for me it always brings back memories of Italia 90 and a few days of pure magic. I dug out this report, written pre France 1998, and was shocked to think it refers to 24 years ago when I was a young slip of a lad.
Competitions were always a hobby for me and I had a decent strike rate but even better than the chance of winning a years supply of semolina pudding was a Fiat World Cup competition run with Fox FM, a local Oxford radio station. The questions were easy multiple choice with the answers contained on the entry pack so I had low expectations of winning through the large response. I nearly fell off my office chair when Fox FM rang me at work and asked an easy tie breaker. I couldn’t believe how obvious the answer was and hesitated for what seemed like an eternity before being told “Your off to Italy”. I managed not to swear to their listeners but did cause quite a commotion at work.
The deal was a four day trip to a game involving England or Scotland and the waiting for details was agonizing but a week later the confirmation letter arrived. I was going with a friend to Sardinia to see England v Egypt in the last group game. The flight from Luton was at 7am, so me and Nigel thought it best to go up the day before and stay at a cheap B & B for an early start. We arrived for opening time and toured the area, via many pubs, seeking a cheap place to stay but by 10pm we were still in a pub and gave in to a taxi to the airport and splashed out on a nearby hotel.
The early alarm rudely awoke us for a frantic walk down the road to an assembly point in time to meet the other 50 or so winners to pose for a lethargic group publicity shot. As the plane rose above the clouds we also gradually rose above our hangovers, and the warm sun that kissed us as we disembarked in Cagliari dispelled any lingering after effects. The coach to the hotel complex took the driver half an hour and the brochure we had poured over hardly did it justice. It was just two floors high and spread out among green lawns. A stroll through a super cooled lobby brought us to a large circular bar, half inside and half out facing a large pool. After dumping bags it had to be beer, mmm this could be fun, no cash up front, it would all appear on a room tab before leaving. Onward and out by the pool, over a lawn, through a small gate and there it was, a deserted, private, sandy beach, stretching several miles in each direction and within a few seconds of the bar – absolute heaven.
The next couple of days were a relaxed mixture of swimming, drinking, and exploring. We were fairly isolated but a few hundred yards down the coast was a camp site where many casual traveling fans had settled overlooked by a large contingent of the infamous carabinieri. Stories were circulating about the young trigger happy conscripts blowing away any fans who dared to even breathe heavily – thankfully they were just stories. The England camp was nearby up in the hills but it was hot enough to discourage the curious from paying a social call. Buses passed our slip road packed to the roof so it was a rag tag, strung out procession of England’s finest ambassadors that trailed into town each day along a busy, pavement less road.
Cagliari itself had plenty to offer. On it’s fringes were small shops and bars all awash with ever souvenir imaginable of Italia 90. The locals were, on the whole, pleased to see us as tourism was just about their main income. A few of us went into the heart of the town alongside the harbour and took the long hike to the ground to have a sneak preview. It was fairly new and impressive and it seemed strange to turn a corner only to be confronted by three large BBC outside broadcast vans. The authorities decreed that all bars would close in town 24 hours before the game, a decision, we were told, that was met with anger by the local bar owners. So it came to pass on the last trip to town the return bus was full of clanking bottle and crate laden fans, wisely and openly stocking up for the drought. I was disgusted to find that a bottle I had bought to drink on the bus was alcohol free.
At the hotel our traditional early evening pasta meal was followed by a frantic last drinking session at the bar with the manager, a Basil Fawlty look and behave alike, seeming to keep track of the slips of paper that recorded the ever growing tabs. Then came match day. It was a slow relaxed build up around the pool as we waited for our afternoon coaches to take us to the ground. Before we left the hotel it was time to settle the bills, the printouts showed alarmingly large numbers of Lira but after conversion most were pretty reasonable. However one middle aged couple were having a domestic, she queried the bill as they had only made a few phone calls, hubby looked sheepishly at the floor before admitting he may have wandered down for the odd beer after she had gone to sleep.
We must have looked a frightening sight as we boarded the coaches in our silly coloured shorts and football shirts with regulation blotchy sun burn. We had been given strict instructions not to take things that could be construed as offensive weapons, such as keys, coins, and combs. On arrival at the stadiums far flung car park we were escorted for the 15 minute walk to the gates where we were frisked. The young Carabinieri seemed almost embarrassed by the fuss, many posed for photographs with us and our home made banners. Once inside we found ourselves grouped together in a corner with a great view, a few thousand England regulars to our left were in full voice. Away in the other corner of the ground was a small group of a few hundred Egypt fans complete with their own brass band. Large metallic musical instruments obviously could not cause ass much damage as keys, coins, and combs.
After the formalities, kick off was soon upon us and we proudly joined in the singing with the main body of England fans, even though the game was nothing to sing about. An embarrassing draw was looming but thankfully Mark Wright, an Oxford boy, came to the rescue with a fine soaring header. In one motion he rescued not only our mood, but also our entire World Cup campaign. Suddenly the songs were of celebration and relief. “Let’s all have a disco” they sang, in previous games it had been “let’s go down the disco” as an alternative to watching poor football. It took ages for our escorts to march us to our coach, and even longer to negotiate the traffic out of the stadium. Back at the hotel everyone slipped quietly away only to re-emerge a few minutes later with their secret stashes of hidden, illicit alcohol.
It was party time around the pool, our singing was loud and boisterous and soon attracted the attention of the carabinieri patrolling the beach, wary of the nearby campsite. They arrived, struck a few menacing poses, but soon sat down smiling when offered a drink and a good natured night followed.
My thirst earlier in the day had depleted my stocks and I ran out of beer quickly. However a few with an eye to our prompt getaway the next morning, retired early leaving plenty off spirits which I helped to dispose of. Overcome with emotion, my legs became a bit wobbly and I was helped to the hotel lobby by a couple of kind carabinieri – a photo opportunity too good for Nigel to miss. The next morning was hazy. Barely five minutes after my awakening, I had packed and boarded the coach. Most of the trip to the airport was spent with my head firmly bowed as we passed through the barren countryside. The flight was smooth and punctual and my emergence from the mists coincided with our onward arrival at Reading station. A couple of good English pints in the nearby pub gave me time to reflect and check my souvenirs. More by luck than planning, I had remembered to add them to my case. I just hoped the players had enjoyed themselves as much as I had.