‘The secret is it’s a good song’: How Italia 90 and ‘World in Motion’ started football’s love affair with music

England players record 'World in Motion' with New Order: Alamy
England players record 'World in Motion' with New Order: Alamy

Italia 90 was the flagship event of a summer when anything seemed possible. The nation’s great obsession, the England football team, reached the World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1966. There were golden boy Gary Lineker’s goals; Gazza’s tears; Chris Waddle’s off-centre, still-rising penalty kick, his feathered mullet fluttering in the wind like the spoiler of a launching space shuttle. Affable, able coach Bobby Robson went from tabloid punchbag to national treasure. Honorary Irishman Jack Charlton took his Republic of Ireland team to see the Pope. Florence, Rome and Sardinia shimmered with colour. Neapolitans bayed as Maradona, the petulant genius they’d taken to their hearts, helped knock Italy out. Opera was at No 2 in the charts as Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” – the BBC’s World Cup theme – touched the soul of a nation. And to top it all, England’s greatest ever World Cup song: “World in Motion, which saw critical darlings New Order team up with England’s stars, including midfielder-turned-rapper John Barnes, went to No 1.

“The thing I never understood about football songs, songs for tournaments and the like, was how come nobody ever thinks to get their very best songwriters involved?” ponders bassist Peter Hook when asked about New Order’s involvement with the song. “People treated the process of writing a football song like they would writing for the Eurovision Song Contest. How come no one ever got their best people on it? How come the FA never asked Coldplay to do one? I think we were the first time a band – a proper band that people liked – got involved. I’m really proud of that. The secret is it’s a good song, not just a football song.”

There had certainly never been a recording session for an England official World Cup song quite like “World in Motion”. It’s inconceivable to imagine the recording sessions for 1970’s beloved, yet dusty “Back Home” being awash with cocaine – a gift from the visiting Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson – quite like producer Stephen Hague’s recording studio had been. Mayhem and mirth dominated Hague’s studio throughout the “World in Motion” invasion. In the building’s darkened corners, if you didn’t bump into the impish Gazza plotting a jape, you’d likely find wide-eyed and giggling Nineties renaissance man Keith Allen whispering bad ideas in your ear.

“Gazza, bless him,” says Allen now, “arrived late in a self-driven Merc, necked three bottles of champagne, got the rap down in one take – having asked if the black nylon pop cover was a pair of Peter Beardsley’s wife’s knickers – then drove back to the England training camp. I think the coolest player at the recording session was Chris Waddle. Very dry, very funny, shit haircut, couldn’t rap and no sense of rhythm – but what a great leather jacket...”

“I think when I look back on New Order,” says Peter Hook, who has been messily estranged from his former bandmates since 2017, “I think our involvement with the England single was as weird as it ever got. The most showbiz. The furthest it felt like we’d come from the group of us that had made up Joy Division. It was the most fun too. Proper once-in-a-lifetime popstar stuff. You know what? The band weren’t in the best place at that time either. We were barely speaking. ‘World In Motion’ thawed our relationships out…” he laughs, “…for a time.”

“I was asked by Tony Wilson to write the words,” notes Allen, “and I did indeed write the rumoured ‘E – is for England… England starts with E… we’ll all be smiling... when we’re in Italy... Obviously it didn’t make it in, but the rejection did make me try harder to squeeze as many sexual and drug double entendres into the rap...”

History records that John Barnes wasn’t the first to try the “World in Motion” rap. At the front of the queue was English football’s newest, brightest star, Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne. It didn’t work, really. Then Peter Beardsley had a go – what a sight that must have been. Then winger Chris Waddle, no stranger to pop music, having reached the glitzy heights of No 12 in the UK singles chart three years previously, collaborating with former Spurs and England teammate Glenn Hoddle on their song “Diamond Lights”. They’d performed it on Top of the Pops and everything.

It took Liverpool forward Barnesy – magnificent at Anfield but infuriatingly inconsistent for England – just one take to get it right.

Lightning Seeds hit machine Ian Broudie recorded Euro 1996 song ‘Three Lions’ with Baddiel and Skinner (PA)

“It’s easy to forget,” says the writer Pete Davies – author of the seminal Italia 90 tome All Played Out, adapted in 2010 as the documentary One Night in Turin – “given the status and respect shown to football now, how utterly dismal football in England was in the late Eighties. It was a pariah. It was in a really bad, depressing condition. You’ve got the Bradford fire in 1985, Heysel a few weeks after, Hillsborough in 1989. There was growing disbelief and despair that people were going to football matches and losing their lives, such was the absolute lack of care shown to sporting venues and fan safety by those in authority…”

Football – for so long the country’s greatest export, its greatest cultural gift, the order of things, the national pastime – “was broken” in 1990, says Davies. “Thatcher was in power and was calling for ‘stiff’ prison sentences for hooliganism. She was backed by her thoroughly dismal minister for sport, Colin Moynihan. They didn’t care. They didn’t see votes in it. Culturally they were disassociated from it. Thatcher actually said that England shouldn’t go to the World Cup. Imagine a PM saying that today. And yet by the time of the poll tax riots, the biggest of which took place only a few months before the tournament kicked off, you knew their time was coming to an end. Something else was around the corner. And there’s Italia 90…”

At its heart, Italia 90 is a story about change. It’s also one about music. And fashion. And of community and intangible matters like love and joy. It’s a month where stories emerge wherever you look; where the scarcely known Italian forward Totò Schillaci becomes as famed for photos of him with his golf ball eyes bulging out of their sockets as he does for the goals that win him the tournament’s Golden Boot. Where a 38-year-old journeyman striker called Roger Milla is coaxed out of retirement by Cameroon’s president Paul Biya and asked to travel to Italy to represent his country (subsequently inspiring a generation of schoolchildren to run to imaginary corner flags and wiggle their hips during playground kickabouts across the world).

Change. So many stories of it.

‘Musical groups didn’t talk about football prior to 1990’: New Order with the 1990 England squad (Alamy)
‘Musical groups didn’t talk about football prior to 1990’: New Order with the 1990 England squad (Alamy)

Italia 90 might be seen as the first, pivotal chapter in the story of how English football would reset, then dominate pop culture for the next 10 years. How Ryan Giggs would soon come to be hawking Quorn produce on British TV. How a young Manchester United footballer called David Beckham and a pop star named Victoria Adams – better known as Posh Spice – would ever find themselves in a situation where they could fall in love (and synergise both brands and DNA). How for a while there, a Saturday morning magazine show called Soccer AM was the best thing on television, sport or otherwise. It’s the story of how then unfashionable shirts by then unfashionable teams like Manchester City and Chelsea – thanks to their appropriation by superstar fans Oasis and Blur – would become desirable items of ownership to NME readers. How psych pranksters Super Furry Animals got their logo strapped across the strips of Cardiff City – and how a song about that team’s cult hero Robin Friday called “The Man Don’t Give a F***” (with said refrain repeated over one hundred times) – came to be played on the radio, years later, trailering discussions concerning the abscondence from a lockdown intended to quash the impact of a global pandemic by a man called Dominic Cummings.

Not that any of us knew who that was yet. That’s ages away. These were the good times…

“Italia 90 is the turning point for football becoming cool,” says Andrew Harrison, former bigwig at iconic Nineties magazines Q, Smash Hits, Mixmag and Select. “I remember once at Select we printed a poster of [Nottingham Forest manager] Brian Clough. No explanation. Just Brian Clough there in his green jersey. Our thinking? Post Italia 90, Brian Clough said far more about British pop culture than another generic, mop-top outfit signed to Creation Records. Italia 90 was cool, but terrace cool, which is really cool.”

“Musical groups didn’t talk about football prior to 1990,” says Peter Hooton of The Farm, a band who since their formation in 1983 have become synonymous with the shared space between music and football terrace culture. “There were exceptions, like ourselves, but there weren’t many. Bands that did talk about football like Sham 69 or The Jam had trouble at their gigs. Football fans were public enemy number one in the Eighties, only after the miners, really. It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t something that anyone wanted to associate themselves with. Italia 90 changed that.”

“Hooliganism had done so much damage to English football,” says Pete Davies. “They were awful people and I hated being around them. But here’s the thing – they weren’t the only people watching England. Clever people at the FA, some journalists, lots of us who cared about England, started to realise that and think about how we could give those sorts of people the football experience they wanted back. The FA did some good things in Italy – establishing fan zones and easing the flow of tickets – it’s just not cool to talk about it…”

“There was definitely a new feeling going around the scene – at football and within music – that violence at football matches wasn’t cool,” continues Hooton. “Music was changing, going out was changing – the catalyst being ecstasy and acid house. People wanted to have a good time again. It’s almost a cliché now to hear how ecstasy changed everything, but we’d find ourselves running into noted football hooligans and one day they were starting fights and the next they would be hugging us and telling us we were great, and that never stopped. It was like a switch going off. Tony Wilson actually said in the NME that acid house had stopped the hooligans. Next time Man Utd and Man City played each other they proved him wrong, but after that he had a point…”

Reflection upon Italia 90 is often couched within terms of rehabilitation. For England, for English fandom, for the national game’s soul. Those tears, that wobbly bottom lip of the then 23-year-old Gascoigne – booked in the semi-final and certain to miss the final that England would not reach – have come to be viewed as events as seismic on the psyche of Britain as much as any that were taking place across the globe that month.

It’s little exaggeration to say that the world in which the 14th football World Cup kicked off in wasn’t the one in which the trophy was lifted one month later at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. The tournament’s winners, West Germany, would never play as such again, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ditto Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and – in their red shirts strapped with the iconic ledger, CCCP – the Soviet Union. The dissolution of Communist Russia the subsequent December saw to that. The world was changing and football with it.

Gazza’s tears were perhaps an early look at what masculinity might come to mean. There was certainly a cerebral groove, a yearn for the spiritual: “Make no mistake, Italy was the funkiest place on earth that summer,” says Pete Davies. Then there was the case of the tournament’s mascot, Ciao, an abstract, gender-neutral, tricolour stick figure, with a football for a head – reportedly dreamt up by amateur designer Lucio Boscardin after a moment of inspiration struck him while sitting at traffic lights. It replaced the competition’s tried and true formula of “cherubic animal” or “anthropomorphic vegetable”. A mascot not just for children, with a flourish of artistry that reflected the cultural mood.

Next time the World Cup would take place it would do so in the United States in 1994, a country that when the tournament kicked off didn’t yet have its own national football league. The opening ceremony began with the singer Diana Ross aiming a penalty at a goal, missing, then seeing pyrotechnics make the goal explode. Its mascot that year? A dog named Striker designed by Warner Bros, “because dogs are a popular pet in America”. Still, football’s march to conquer the earth pushed ever onwards. Roll on Qatar in 2024…

Back in the UK, iconic clothing outlets like Duffer of St George on D’Arblay Street in Soho were giving window space to increasingly sporty fashions – ultra culture you might call it if “ultra” wasn’t such a loaded term. These were threads that would be further popularised by inclusion in style bible The Face. The magazine – itself now all in on football – ran a cover on the eve of the tournament with Kate Moss wrapped in a football scarf. “We’d go wearing our gear to all these great bars ran by sound people who actually liked football. Charlie Chester who ran Flying in Soho and The Milk Bar. The best places we’d ever been…” recalls Hooton.

T-shirts depicting the ledger “No Alla Violenza” were the season’s must have item. Norman Cook wore one. The Beloved. The Farm. “It felt like loads of people were taking their enthusiasm for football and using it to infuse their creativity. We’d been around for ages now, but I was doing the magazine The End. Terry Farley and Andrew Weatherall were doing Boys Own magazine, which became the record label. There was, for the first time in my lifetime actually, a moment where drugs and a love of football actually broke down the bullshit and made for a genuine working-class connection. I remember being at some rave in Blackburn and some fellas being like, ‘We had the Mancs down the other night – they’re alright, aren’t they?’ They’d never noticed or cared to realise before. The drugs stripped everything right back.”

“You can’t underestimate the importance of ‘World In Motion’,” says Hooton, of New Order’s unconventional contribution to the traditional official tournament song. “Football songs hadn’t been cool before. You hadn’t heard them in clubs before. It was a statement…”

“Or ‘Nessun Dorma’,” says Mark Godfrey, whose Vincerà! The story of Italia 90 podcast features an episode focusing on each game in the tournament. “The BBC did such extraordinary work with their titles during that tournament – and getting someone like my dad, who lived on an estate, into opera. That’s all he listens to, even now…”

Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ was the BBC’s World Cup theme (Getty)
Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ was the BBC’s World Cup theme (Getty)

“Everyone always asks me about the importance of ‘World in Motion’ or ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the tournament,” laughs Davies, “and I struggle to contribute. I was on the ground in Italy, so all I heard was Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, which was the big song in Italy that summer. It played in every café for a month…”

Any English fan who spent a day, a week or all of that extraordinary month in Italy is agreed that the biggest change they saw wasn’t just in the football they watched – but in themselves. “There was so much shit in Britain at that point,” says Davies. “There’d been the poll tax riots, the Tories were still hanging on, the country was suffering from a decade of Thatcher, but there just seemed to be a commitment in young people that they were going to make something brilliant of their lives. It was like Italy and Europe and how big and open the world seemed had showed them that.”

It’s the stories of those lives, and how they played out within the subsequent decade, that serve as Italia 90’s lasting legacy. Express yourself, you know the rest…

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