Behind the mascot, the poster and kits: How the 1990 Italian World Cup flagged a new era for football
Why has Italia 90 claimed such a huge stake in both designers’ and football fans’ hearts, and how did a 31-year-old event change the “beautiful game” for the modern era?
There is an Italian saying – “fare una bella figura” – which, roughly translated, means “to make a good impression”. But as most Italians understand, it’s more like, “always show we are at our best, even when we aren’t.” It’s a term the editor of Season Zine, Naomi Accardi, uses to describe the 1990 Fifa World Cup hosted by her birth country, Italy. It also embodies the story behind its iconic visuals; famous motifs now cemented in the sport’s canon, but with unexpected histories dating back to a time when Italian design was on the cusp of change.
The 1990 World Cup is revered in many ways. Kicking off on 8 June 1990 at Milan’s futuristic San Siro stadium, the tournament was one of the poorest in terms of games, claiming a record low in its average of 2.2 goals per game. Despite this, Italia Novanta (as it is known by its host nation) holds a dear place for football fans and newcomers, both in the minds of those who were there, and those who were yet to be born.
Along with its visuals, Italia 90 is remembered for its wider cultural significance, felt in even just the sights and sounds that surrounded the games. The BBC’s choice of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma became a totemic soundtrack for football, democratising opera in the process. The semi-final between West Germany and England, a game watched by 25.2 million people, also brought us “Gazza’s tears”. “My bottom lip was like a helicopter pad,” writes Paul Gascoigne in his book Glorious: My World, Football and Me. Though England fell short on those fateful penalties, Gazza’s tears came to represent an element of football seen as taboo 31 years ago: candid male emotion. As Gazza welled up, the seconds of pure humanity suggested to other men that it was okay to shed their tears too.
Italia 90 took place at a tumultuous time for football as well. As Mundial’s founder and managing director Seb White tells us, “The previous decade had seen football well and truly in the gutter, people were almost ashamed to admit to being a football fan.” Italia 90 changed all that. The 80s, for instance, had seen English clubs banned from European competitions due to the Heysel Stadium disaster. And one year before the World Cup, 96 Liverpool FC fans were fatally crushed, and blamed for it, at Hillsborough. “After years of hating football because of the hooliganism and death trap stadiums,” says Seb, “millions outside of the hardcore match-goers saw that football can also be a force for good.”
One such force was the tournament’s ability to unite nations. As millions came out in support of their country’s team, Ciao, the mascot striped in the Italian tricolour, was “able to represent the Italian people better than any realistic mascot could have,” adds Naomi from Season Zine. Yet despite the unity this figure presented, the story differs largely from the mammoth lucrative branding projects we see today – costing far less than Wolff Olins’ work for the London 2012 Olympics or DesignStudio’s recent rebrand of the Premier League.
Back in 1985, the Italia 90 organising committee announced a competition to design the tournament’s mascot. Amongst the 50,000 entries received was one design made by Lucio Boscardin, a self-taught graphic designer and the creator of Ciao. Singled out for its subtle nod to Italian identity through its colour scheme – and not, like some of the entries, Italy’s rather obvious Roman past or fondness for pizza and pasta – Ciao was futuristic in its angular, gender-neutral depiction of a footballer, and remains a timeless piece of design to this day.
Lucio is said to have come up with the idea in front of a traffic light, and the mascot design certainly stands out in comparison to its peers, which, since 1966 when the first mascot appeared, have all been animated cartoon characters of sorts. From Spain’s 1982 Naranjito to South Africa’s Zakumi, created for the first African World Cup in 2010, every other World Cup mascot possesses the same dough-eyed expression and cheesy grin.
Ciao presented an alternative, still beloved as a symbol that best describes the summer of 1990. Its iconic look is ingrained in Thomas Kronbichler and Martin Kerschbaumer, the founders of the Bolzano-based Studio Mut, which works predominantly in the arts and culture sector. In a sea of goofy-eyed mascots thanks to the popularity of Sesame Street and Disney, Ciao unapologetically defies this precedent – a quality the pair believe to be quintessentially Italian in its design approach.
Contrary to how most logos or motifs are crafted with iteration after iteration, Ciao’s winning selection only happened, according to Thomas, “because of an Italian – how do you say – unprofessionalism in a way.” In short, it came down to an Italian quality of “trusting this guy”, an unknown designer who would go on to represent football in a country where the sport is practically a religion. Thomas further describes this kind of trust as “a big thing in Italy”, an attitude of “you know, we’ll figure it out”.
The mascot received the stamp of approval from several Italian design greats including car designer Sergio Pininfarina, best known for designing the classic Peugeot 504 Cabriolet, and Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, chairman of Fiat and Ferrari at the time, both of whom sat on the judging committee. During an era of pronounced design innovation in sport – take Otl Aicher’s identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics, for example – Italy instead handed the creative reins to a relatively unknown entity. It pays a faithful tribute to the humility of football, a game that can be played by anyone and anywhere.
On the other hand, Italia 90’s poster takes a distinctly different creative approach to Ciao. Designed by Alberto Burri as a series of six posters for the World Cup, it places the Colosseum centre stage, as a more literal nod to Italy’s classical past. Yet despite their differences, the poster ages equally well, “with a real DIY spirit that resonates today,” according to Felicia Pennant, an award-winning journalist and founder of Season Zine. Not only does it highlight Italy’s famous landmark, it also draws parallels between football and “the spectacle of gladiators in Ancient Rome fighting to the death in the amphitheatre”. By centring the Colosseum directly under the viewer’s gaze, “your imagination is set alight,” says Felicia, “because it’s not as far removed from football as you’d expect, when you really think about it.”
Nevertheless the poster is often overshadowed by Ciao in remembrances of the tournament. Unlike current graphic design approaches, the various visual outputs of Italia 90 share no resemblance. While designers are now taught to create uniform visual systems that can be applied to all its deliverables, Italia 90 had no regard for such consistency. “There were like 80 different versions of the key chain because it was all made by different people,” Studio Mut’s Martin says of the eclectic range of merchandise. “The designers had more or less the licence to do what they wanted.” A far cry from the back-and-forth client-designer relationship that exists today.
For Studio Mut, here lies the real beauty and success behind the Italia 90 identity: the fact that there wasn’t just one. When we talk about “identity in design”, everyone wants to create something unique to match the personality of the brand in question. It’s a notion instilled deep in the designer’s narrative, but as a result, “identity has become so normal, so normative in so many ways,” Thomas says. But on the flip side, it means that when we come across something wholly atypical, like the Italia 90 identity which is “not safe in any way”, it lands. Irregularity is part of its success.
Besides the poster and logo, there are plenty of other Italia 90 design gems. For Naomi, the tournament was “the climax of what an unbelievably unique place this country [Italy] can be.” Though she was born one year after the games, Naomi has grown up with the resounding memory of the World Cup imbued within her national identity. “It was the last time we were able to platform everything we are good (and bad) at in front of the whole world.” There is one particular element of World Cup memorabilia that she dreams of owning to this day – and no, it’s not poster or shirt-related. It’s the Italia 90 Fiat Panda.
As Fiat was a major sponsor of the World Cup, the Italian car manufacturer adapted its standard white 750cc Panda for the occasion, applying a green and red pinstripe across the car, not to mention Ciao on the white exterior. Arguably the most emblematic detail of the car, however, is its football hubcaps.“ It’s a symbol of the Italian working class and this edition really represents the people who made the tournament possible and animated the streets,” says Naomi. “For once, you felt proud to be a fan of this sport in this country.”
Another quintessential aspect of the games which has been given plenty of airtime is, of course, the football kits. The winning team, West Germany, stands out as a design that continues to make an impression more than two decades after its inception. Jon Sutton, exhibitions manager at the National Football Museum, recently curated a show on football shirts in which the star is West Germany’s. The shirt was actually designed two years earlier for the Euro 88 games but “the West Germany manager Franz Beckenbauer loved it so much that he insisted the team wore it for longer than was the norm,” Jon tells It’s Nice That.
Prior to this, Germany’s shirts were rather plain, predominantly white with a streak of black. But a designer at Adidas, a woman named Ina Franzmann, decided to inject some colour into the textile design. Centring around a radical geometric pattern flashing from shoulder to shoulder, the pattern is purposefully designed to convey power to the player’s shoulders. “They broke tradition with style by featuring colours lifted straight from the national flag,” says Jon. “The shirt represented a huge risk for Adidas,” he continues, “and there was still hesitance in using such a bold nod to Germany’s national identity, even after four decades of peace following the Second World War.”
It was a worthwhile risk with the shirt now an idolised pillar of football history; a seminal kit not only for its rhythmic composition but its socio-political place in history. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in June 1990, Germany reunified a few months later on 3 October and the shirt’s design became a symbol of a newly reconciled Germany – the first kit to be worn by a new national team, no longer divided into East and West. Following an interview with Ina, Jon adds: “She told me something special that I think sums up the shirt’s legacy, but also defines great design: ‘Try to make a real change. Irritate, provoke, look for a vision and be confident.’ That shirt did that with a bang.”
Aside from Ina’s design, football shirts became increasingly en vogue after Italia 90. As Naomi points out: “Have you ever seen any other sports event feature a literal fashion show with some of the most renowned designers at its opening ceremony?” By making use of Italy’s revered high fashion houses, the pitch turned into a catwalk, proving “that as much as sport and fashion seem to be antipodean, they seamlessly collide and coexist in the same space,” she says. “Football is popular culture. Italia 90 raised the bar for how clubs and sports events present themselves.”
To don the shirt of your team became a statement, surpassing its original purpose as sporting attire and instead entering into the realm of style-infused allegiance. These days, clubs have at least three jerseys on sale per season which, Felicia points out, “seems at odds with an overall societal drive towards greater sustainability”. In the decades that followed, football celebrities were born and players too became a part of popular culture, sometimes overshadowing their ability on the pitch. For anyone who grew up in England, remember when every other kid on the high street looked like a mini David Beckham – mohawk, Man U kit and all.
It’s widely understood that Italia 90 was the catalyst for such changes in the game. It’s also worth noting that the World Wide Web was made publicly available in the years that followed, dually altering the scope of popular culture. For Felicia, Italia 90 “feels like the beginning of modern football”, a tournament which paved the way for England’s Premier League to absorb the World Cup’s resounding buzz. As Naomi puts it: “It was the beginning of the era of football business.” No longer just a Sunday afternoon means of entertainment, but an “uber-capitalistic” business model.
Marketing became a key component of football as money began to be “pumped into clubs as they recognised their brand potential and, inevitably, that provided an opportunity for brands to start changing the way they interacted with the sports industry,” Naomi continues. In 2017, for instance, Neymar transferred from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for a record-whopping £198 million, the most expensive player to date. But with more investment, the game also gathered more infrastructure and became safer, ensuring tragedies like Hillsborough would never happen again.
While most of our interviewees regard Italia 90 as the trigger for change in football, when it comes to its design, it is remembered as a peak for Italy. “The 80s and 90s was the downfall of graphic design in Italy,” says Martin of Studio Mut. Up until that point, Italian graphic design had experienced a heyday. From the 50s through to the 70s, world-renowned designers such as Massimo Vignelli, Bruno Munari, Fortunato Depero and Franco Grignani became pioneers of the industry. “But then with television and advertising,” says Thomas, “everything went downhill.”
The Italian creative sector shifted into a more marketable spot and, by the 90s, the once-great design values of craft and philosophy were “basically worthless”, he continues. The Studio Mut co-founder describes the unexpected success of Italia 90 as “the last kick made by accident”, a series of unforgettable visuals ingrained in the consciousness of generations to come, but produced out of an otherwise “bleak time” for Italian design.
And with that, our story comes full circle, back to Naomi’s expression – “fare una bella figura” – and Italy and football’s drive to “always show we are at our best, even when we aren’t”.
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About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.