Remember BBC's Italia 90 opening credits? Here's the incredible story behind them

How Pavarotti and opera became a memorable part of the 1990 World Cup.

Source: lordjrw/YouTube

FOR SO MANY, the untimely passing of the late, great Bill O’Herlihy struck a chord.

The legendary broadcaster’s death was greeted by an universal outpouring of sorrow as his unmistakable humility and generosity made him one of, if not, the most popular figure to appear on our screens.

As the nation remembered his storied career, it was a trip down memory lane for most of us as we recounted the iconic days of our sporting childhood. The World Cups, European Championships and Olympic games. The highs and lows, the tears and laughs.

But if there was one abiding memory of ‘Billo’, then it was almost certainly this week 25 years ago as he, just like the team, captured hearts and minds while fronting RTÉ’s Italia 90 coverage.

Indeed, it’s amazing how one indelible moment, or a particular aspect of a broadcast, can help shape how we remember a sporting event and make a lasting impression.

If Bill O’Herlihy, John Giles and Eamon Dunphy became an integral part of the 1990 World Cup then BBC provided the unofficial soundtrack of the tournament.

Within hearing a single melody of Luciano Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’, the mind is instantly transported back a quarter of a century – Jackie’s Army, Bonner’s save and Gazza’s tears.

Soccer WCup Germany England Again Gazza's tears after England's shoot-out defeat to West Germany is an abiding memory from Italia 90. Source: AP/Press Association Images

From the powerful opening lyrics to the stirring chorus, it was a song which successfully captured the emotive, dramatic and enduring nature of the World Cup itself and such was it’s impact, the song spiralled to number two in the British charts.

But, it was a risk – it was like nothing that had gone before.

Sports theme tunes tended to be variations of the ‘Match of the Day’ or ‘Grandstand’ style templates produced on a low budget and in a short space of time.

Moreover, an 1926 opera aria didn’t appear to be the choice of song to enliven a broadcaster’s coverage of the most-watched sporting event on the planet but Italia 90 was different.

The beautiful game was being played in a beautiful country famed for its classical arts and heritage and ‘Nessun Dorma’ complemented Italy’s staging of the World Cup perfectly.

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No one involved in the production process could have envisaged that the credits which were to bookend BBC’s coverage were to have such an impact and one man was central to it.

As a young producer, Philip Bernie had the idea of matching ‘the climatic vocals’ of Pavorotti with Marco Tardell’s ecstatic celebration after scoring in the 1982 World Cup final.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Final 1982 - Italy v West Germany - Santiago Bernabeu Stadium Marco Tardelli's celebration provided the inspiration for the opening and closing credits. Source: Peter Robinson

He originally used ‘Nessun Dorma’ for a video insert in BBC’s coverage of the 1990 draw and the rest, as they say, was history.

“I was a fan of the song,” Bernie, who is now BBC’s Head of TV Sport, told The42. ”After using it for the draw, I suggested using it for the titles music and it all evolved from there.”

Countless meetings followed before it was finally approved by senior officials including presenter Des Lynam and Brian Barwick, who was BBC’s football editor at the time.

“I then worked with the graphic designer on developing the idea,” Bernie continued. “He shot the dancers that we used around the football in the titles, and I came up with the football content – before we stitched it all together.”

It all centered around the word ‘Vincero’, which translates as ‘I will win’, and Bernie used the images of Tardelli, the former Ireland assistant manager, as he ran away with his arms spread and mouth wide open in delirium as the climax.

Media/ Lynam Des Lynam was central to the process and he was the one who endorsed the idea Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“It was a mix of current and past greats, which we graphically stylised to fit in with the overall feel of the titles – and of course with the music. Tardelli’s celebration was the crucial shot for the finale – mouth agape to mirror Pavorotti’s voice.

“Incidentally, there was a stir from the record company when they first heard of our use of the music.”

“But it was settled pretty swiftly and amicably and once they realised how much the tune had caught on, they became extremely positive about it.”

Indeed, Pavarotti’s stock began to soar. Alongside Placido Domingo and José Carreras, the Three Tenors embarked on worldwide tours, performing on front of sold-out arenas across the globe.

Yet, for football fans of a certain generation, ‘Nessun Dorma’ will always be associated with the 1990 World Cup. As Des Lynam said, “it will be remembered as probably the outstanding theme of any major televised sporting event ever.”

By the time the tournament reached the semi-final stage, as many as 26 million people were tuning into BBC’s broadcasts and one listen to that famous rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ will instantly rekindle memories of a summer that will never fade.


Click here for more of The42’s commemorative Italia 90 Week coverage >

About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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