Three tales of the Azzuri, who will be missed this year
1982: ‘The day football died’
The Estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona no longer exists. It was demolished more than 20 years ago. Yet, when people think of it, it’s another kind of ruin that comes to mind. The Brazilians still refer to the World Cup match on 5 July 1982 as “the day football died”. Yet, that description is vastly unfair to an Italian side that beat them fair and square.
Brazil needed a draw to qualify for the semi-finals. Italy needed the win. And within 5 minutes, they had the advantage, with Paolo Rossi heading in Antonio Cabrini’s wonderful left-wing cross.
The lead didn’t last. Serginho, the big and often lumbering centre-forward, had missed a sitter when a devastating piece of interplay between Socrates and Zico gave Brazil parity. Zico’s turn and back-heel before slipping a pass through to Socrates were magical. The finish from Socrates was emphatic, and, as the commentator rightly said, it was “a goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football.”
That philosophy, however, didn’t pay as much attention to the defensive arts. And in the 25th minute, Rossi intercepted a careless sideways pass from Toninho Cerezo and let fly with a thunderbolt past Waldir Peres in the Brazilian goal. Brazil kept creating chances, but the reflexes of Dino Zoff in goal and the iron-fist-velvet-glove centre-back pairing of Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea kept them at bay.
It needed another moment of genius to breach that defence. A delightful pass from the marauding Junior with the outside of his boot, and Falcão creating space for a shot before arrowing one past Zoff into the far corner. The celebrations were ecstatic, but again Brazil refused to sit on the lead.
In the 74th minute, from their first corner of the game, Italy delivered the knockout punch. Giuseppe Bergomi went up for the header, and the ball came out to Marco Tardelli on the edge of the box. His mishit shot was going wide, but Rossi was there to divert it past Peres. Giancarlo Antognoni then had a goal chalked off for offside before Oscar’s header, from an Eder free kick, was fumbled and then saved on the line by Zoff. Italy were through. Brazilian football would never be the same again.
1994: Baggio turns star
The World Cup on home soil in 1990 ended in heartache for Baggio and Italy, as Argentina prevailed in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final. By 1994, he was Fifa’s World Player of the Year, but the start of the World Cup campaign was a disaster. After losing to Ireland in their opening game, Italy had Gianluca Pagliuca, their goalkeeper, sent off in a 1-0 win over Norway. Baggio, who would call him “crazy”, was the one Arrigo Sacchi sacrificed as he brought on the substitute goalkeeper.
A draw against Mexico meant that Italy had to play red-hot Nigeria in the second round. The Africans scored first, and Italy then had Gianfranco Zola sent off. Game over? Not quite. With 2 minutes left on the clock, Baggio swept in a Roberto Mussi cross. And in extra-time, it was his chipped cross to Antonio Benarrivo that resulted in Italy winning a penalty. Baggio thrashed it in off the right-hand post. He then won an ill-tempered and controversial last-eight encounter against Spain with a goal from an acute angle after rounding Andoni Zubizarreta.
His best, though, was saved for the semi-final against Bulgaria. A delightful jink in from the left touchline and a marvellous curled shot gave Italy a 21st-minute lead, and he then applied the finishing touches to a pitching-wedge of a pass from Demetrio Albertini 4 minutes later. But the hamstring injury he picked up as the game wound down would have huge consequences. After the most sterile of World Cup finals against Brazil, Baggio put his kick in the shoot-out into orbit. “I knew what I had to do, and my concentration was perfect,” he said later. “But I was so tired that I tried to hit the ball too hard.”
Four years later, in France, he would add two more goals, against Chile and Austria. Yet again, however, Italy’s dreams floundered on the rocks of a penalty shoot-out, against France. This time, he didn’t miss, but Albertini and Luigi Di Biagio did. And just like that, one of the storied World Cup careers was over.
2006: The headbutt
Seldom have two men dominated the narrative in a World Cup final quite like Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi did in 2006. It was Materazzi’s foul on Florent Malouda that gave France an early penalty, one that Zidane converted with the most impudent of chips down the middle. But, 12 minutes later, Materazzi’s header from a corner gave Italy parity, and he and Fabio Cannavaro, his fellow centre-back, ensured that France and Zidane, who had beaten Spain, Brazil and Portugal to get to the final, were kept at bay.
Luca Toni’s header came back off the crossbar and Zidane saw a header of his own tipped over by Gianluigi Buffon. Then, in the 110th minute, as he and Materazzi were walking back towards the centre circle, words were exchanged. Materazzi says that Zidane said, “If you want my shirt, I’ll give it to you afterwards,” a reference to some shirt-tugging from the Italian. Materazzi responded with “stupid words”. He later told L’Equipe: “They didn’t deserve to provoke such a reaction. If you go to a football pitch in the suburbs of Rome, Naples, Turin, Milan or Paris, you’ll realise that what I said was quite soft compared to what you hear there.”
Enraged by a slur about his sister, Zidane turned and headbutted Materazzi in the chest. Horacio Elizondo, the Argentine referee, had no option but to bring out the red card. Less than half an hour later, Italy and Materazzi held the World Cup.
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