Spain had enjoyed good years under manager Miguel Muñoz, the highlight being the quarter final in the 1986 World Cup, and they were duly seeded as number 1 in the qualification draw for Italia’90. Spain had also participated at the 1988 Euro, where they in fairness looked somewhat under par. After crashing out of the group stage, former star layer Luis Suárez took over the reins, having until then coached the U21s with much success. His appointment coincided with the retirement of several stalwarts (e.g. Camacho, Gordillo etc), and by including several of his players from his U21 team, the new looking Spanish team looked exciting, if maybe a bit inexperienced.
Hungary were usual faces in the World Cup, having participated in the three latest tournaments (1978–). With this pedigree, they could have good hopes of taking one of the two spots that qualified for Italia’90. Their campaign for the 1988 Euros had been indifferent, but good news was the re-appointment of György Mezey as team manager. He would be remembered for the impressive national team he led in the middle of the 80s, even though their participation in the 1986 World Cup was forgettable. Mezey would rely on many of the same players he had trusted back then, and with Détári as the all-important playmaker of the team.
After qualifying for two consecutive World Cups, Northern Ireland could perhaps have hoped for a higher ranking, but they were only third seeded in the draw. Would they again defy the odds to make it to the global stage of football? It was generally recognized that Billy Bingham was in the process of rebuilding his team. Many of the key players from the generation that got the Ulstermen to the 1982 and 1986 World Cups were now retired or too old. But some talent was still emerging, giving some much needed optimism. The team had after all not performed very well the last two years, and the qualifiers for the 1988 Euro were forgettable.
The Republic of Ireland were largely touted as second favourites in this group, despite only being 4th seeded in the draw. A ranking they in fairness did not deserve. The Irish had impressed everyone in the 1988 Euros, narrowly missing out on the semifinals. Jackie Charlton had moulded the team after his ideas, making them a much feared unit with a physical style of play and long ball tactics. There was undeniably also talent in his side, with key players from Liverpool like Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton.
The last team in the group was Malta (5th), now under West German coach Horst Heese. Malta occasionally managed to hold on to draws in their qualification campaigns, and could potentially be a tricky opponent at Ta’ Qali in Valletta.