Together they are two of the strongholds of European, and world, football. Two nations home to giants of the club game. Two nations with their eyes always fixed on the glittering prizes of the game, and frequently judging themselves against the other. And thanks to the recent draw for World Cup qualification, two rivals who will renew on-field hostilities on the road to Russia 2018.
The Azzurri of Italy and the Roja of Spain have been pitched together by FIFA, with only one of them able to guarantee a place in the World Cup without the recourse of the play-offs. The matches will be the latest in a line of sporadic, yet crucial, clashes over the years.
The two great sides may have only met occasionally in meaningful tournament ties but when they have faced each other, the emotions ran high, the tension ratcheted up a notch or two, and the outcome was often uncertain until the very last moments. No clash between them encapsulated the drama, strain and sheer angst better than the 1994 World Cup quarter-final, in Foxborough, Massachussets.
There was a time, not so long ago, that Spain were considered the great underachievers of international football. In contrast to the recent, rather successful generation, their Spanish national team predecessors were repeatedly arriving at tournaments hailed as one of the favourites, only to flatter to deceive time and time again.
Until their victory in the World Cup 2010, Spain had only a lone semi-final appearance in 1950 to shout about. More accurately they made it to the final four group on that occasion, where they finished fourth. European glory had come their way in 1964, in what was altogether another age, before their two recent successes redressed the balance somewhat. But for years, Spain was a byword for underachievement.
Chief among their tormentors in tournaments past were their great Mediterranean rivals, Italy. Having between them produced some of the world’s best players, Spain and Italy are home to some of Europe’s grandest and most successful clubs sides. But at international level, the Azzurri blue had until recently, consistently held sway over Spain’s Roja.
Prior to a Euro 2008 quarter-final, in which Spain finally overcame their Italian hex with a penalty shoot-out victory on the way to winning the tournament, the two sides had met four times in major tournament finals. Spain had not prevailed in any of them. Back in the mists of time, they first clashed at the 1934 World Cup in Italy. After a bruising encounter that finished all square, Italy won a replay against an injury-depleted Spain.
Clashing again in the group stages of Euro 1980, Spain dominated the play but the game ended goalless, before Italy won 1-0 in the Euro 1988 group stages. But when the two sides met once more in the World Cup quarter finals in the 1994 World Cup quarter-final, the Spanish felt that finally their chance had come to edge past their great rivals when it really mattered.
Their optimism was not unfounded. While neither side had begun the 1994 tournament in particularly impressive style, Spain had progressed with significantly more ease than Italy had. Indeed, Italy could count themselves rather fortunate to have made it as far as the quarter-final.
Under the legendary former Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi, Italy had arrived at the tournament on a high thanks in no small part to AC Milan’s 4-0 demolition of Barcelona’s Dream Team in the 1994 Champion’s League final.
The core of that glorious squad – the likes of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, Demetrio Albertini, Roberto Donadoni – formed the basis of the national team that went to the USA with high hopes. They had a sprinkling of star quality too in Roberto Baggio – the central figure in Italy’s tournament.
Sacchi was far from popular in Italy, however, and as his side blundered their way from one catastrophe to the next as the 1994 World Cup began, the pressure, the scrutiny, the criticism, increased exponentially. Italy had lost their opening match to Ireland and Ray Houghton’s famous strike, and then in their next match against Norway, it would get even worse.
Midway through the first half Italy’s goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca, was sent-off for handling outside the box. Only twenty minutes into a match they needed to win, Sacchi had to take off an outfield player to allow the replacement goalkeeper to come on. The man he took off was Roberto Baggio.
“I did it to save him and to save the team,” he explained afterwards. “He has some injuries. We needed 10 players on the field who could run all the time.” Baggio’s expression as he left the field made it perfectly clear what he thought of the risky decision.
The Italian fans were stunned into silent disbelief, as the national press pack sharpened their knives should it go wrong. Luckily for Sacchi, another Baggio – Dino – scored a send half header to belatedly get their World Cup up and running in a tense, chaotic, 1-0 win.
A draw with Mexico in the final group match saw Italy finish in third place. Nowadays that would have meant elimination, but in the 24-team tournament of 1994, Italy snuck through as one of the best third-placed finishers and lived to fight another day. In the round of 16 they faced an impressive Nigeria, fresh from winning their group ahead of Argentina and the strong Bulgaria of Hristo Stoichkov.
Italy fell behind to a first half strike from Emmanuel Amunike, and then fell a man down once more when Gianfranco Zola was, rather harshly, sent off. Just minutes later, Paolo Maldini was exceptionally fortunate not to join Zola in the dressing room when he escaped with just a yellow card for pulling down Rashidi Yekini when clear on goal.
With just moments left in the match, Roberto Baggio made his first emphatic mark on the tournament, firing in an elegant equaliser before scoring again in extra-time to seal a dramatic win.
“The World Cup begins now,” remarked Roberto Baggio. “Not just for myself but for Italy.” It had come so close to ending, but Italy were in the quarter-finals. Spain were duly warned.
For their part, Spain had made rather easier progress to the quarter-final, not that their campaign had been without incident. Overcoming the early sending off of defender Miguel Angel Nadal in their opening match with South Korea, they eased to a two-nil lead in the second half.
But in the final five minutes, Spain contrived to throw their comfortable lead away in a 2-2 draw. Another draw with Germany and a win over Bolivia sent them through to the knock-out rounds where Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland lay in wait.
Unlike Italy’s dramatic last-16 match, Spain had no such difficulties in overcoming the Swiss in a dominant 3-0 win. Baggio may have belatedly awoken the Italians from their slumber, but it was Spain that arrived in the quarter-final in better form.
As with Sacchi for Italy though, the Spanish coach Javier Clemente was far from popular. He stubbornly stuck to his less than expansive style and his apparent preference for several Basque players, and several from Barcelona – the Dream Team beaten so resoundingly by AC Milan just weeks earlier.
At midday local time at Foxboro Stadium, a little way south of Boston, in the heat of mid-summer the two great Mediterranean rivals stepped out in front of a packed crowd for the latest episode of their saga. Perhaps imbued with renewed confidence having come through their repeated brushes with disaster, it was the Italians who began the match the more impressively. The bulk of the early meaningful possession was theirs, as the Spanish appeared initially nervous and constrained.
Italy were rewarded for their dominance on 25 minutes when, after some nice play wide on the left from Roberto Donadoni, Dino Baggio fired an unstoppable rocket past Andoni Zubizarreta from 25 yards out. It was a deserved lead, and one that for the remainder of the first half went relatively unchallenged, as Spain continued their lacklustre start.
But that would change in a dramatic second half. Spain came out of the blocks with a renewed intent, forcing Italy back. Just fifteen minutes into the second period the match was all-square once more. Sergi Barjuan made a marauding run down Spain’s left in a swift counter-attack and centred the ball into a rather unguarded Italian penalty area.
Bakero took a swing at the ball, missing it completely, but wrong-footing the Italian defence as he did. It ran through to Jose Luis Caminero on the edge of the box. The Atletico Madrid midfielder prodded the ball goalwards, only for a deflection off the outstretched boot of Antonio Bennarivo to send the ball up and beyond Pagliuca’s despairing outstretched arms.
Spain were level, and they smelled blood. Continuing to press the Italians back they sought to steal the victory and finally rid themselves of the hex the Italians held over them. Andoni Goikoetxea went close with a fierce drive that Pagliuca managed to parry to safety, Fernando Hierro shot narrowly over the bar; the direction was mainly one way, Spain were surely destined to grab the winner and finally overcome the Italians.
Their golden chance came with only seven minutes remaining. Julio Salinas, a rather awkward and not entirely popular striker, and one of Clemente’s oft-criticised favourites, found himself all alone inside the Italian box, one-on-one with Pagliuca. But he fluffed his big moment, scuffing the ball weakly and hitting Pagliuca’s legs.
Chances as good as that don’t come along too often and, if they are missed, the team’s chances can quickly disappear. Sadly for the Spanish, that was how it would go on this occasion.
Just two minutes remained on the clock when Italy broke clear of the repeated Spanish attacks, with Giuseppe Signori leading the charge. He latched on to a long clearance from their beleaguered back line and reached the ball just before the last onrushing Spanish defender. With an outstretched toe-poke he tipped it into the path of the one man Spain didn’t want it falling to: Roberto Baggio.
Baggio was unmarked and bore down on the ball set on an apparent collision course with Zubizarreta. He got there moments before the Spanish keeper and controlled the ball immediately with the most exquisite of first touches. He nonchalantly nudged the ball to his right and rounded the prone, now stranded, keeper and belted the ball into the net, avoiding the despairing covering lunge of Aberlardo.
For the second match running, the Italians celebrated a dramatic last-gasp goal – this time surely a winning goal. Spain had previous little time to exact a remarkable recovery. But this match wasn’t over yet. As dramatic as what had already gone, it was what happened a couple of minutes into stoppage time that would remain the most talked-about moment from this absorbing match.
Following a loose and desperate cross into the Italian box from the Spanish right, midfielder Luis Enrique fell to the ground, pole-axed. The referee, Hungarian Sandor Puhl, later to be in charge of the Final itself, waved play on, seeing nothing untoward. But as Enrique got to his feet with blood pouring from his now broken nose, the millions watching around the world knew that the referee had missed something crucial.
TV replays showed as clear as day that Mauro Tassotti, the Italian full-back, had connected with a swift and vicious elbow to Enrique, leaving him bloodied, dazed, and justifiably fuming. He had to be firmly held back from challenging the distinctly guilty-looking perpetrator, as the profanities poured from his mouth as freely as the blood from his nose.
Those same television images would be used to give Tassotti a subsequent eight-match ban, but that was little consolation to the Spanish when the final whistle went moments later. They should have had a penalty which, had they converted, would have taken the match into extra-time. Italy would have been a man down. We will never know, but the result may well have been different had Puhl seen Tassotti’s assault.
Spain, angry and despairing, were out, while Italy went oh-so-close to winning it all in the final with Brazil. For Spain, the anguish was compounded by the fact that once again it was Italy, their bête-noir, who had finished them off; the manner of the defeat making it all the more agonising.
When the two were due to meet again competitively in that Euro 2008 quarter-final, it was the imagery of Enrique’s blood-splattered face and shirt that was plastered all over the Spanish papers. Tassotti’s errant elbow was one that “still hurts Spain”, as noted in Marca. “Italy, we have not forgotten this,” declared the front-page headline.
The Spanish paper continued: “If there is an image that sums up Italy v Spain meetings it’s the bloody face of a crying Luis Enrique…Italian cheating once again went unpunished.” Spanish television went into smashed-nose overload in advance of that clash. The Marca journalist summed up the obsession rather neatly:
I go to fill the car with petrol and there’s Luis Enrique vomiting blood behind the pump; I go to take a piss and there’s Luis Enrique in the cubicle, doubled over, cleaning the blood off his disfigured face; I climb into bed and there’s someone there next to my wife – it’s Mauro Tassotti.
Tassotti and Italy had won that day in 1994 though, and it is that as much as anything that haunted the Spanish. They had still never beaten Italy in a competitive match. The prospect of facing Italy gave Spain untold jitters, and an alarming and occasionally paralysing level of loathing and fear.
Euro 2008 and an edgy penalty shoot-out would change all that, and by the time of their next clash – in the final of Euro 2012 in Kiev – the fear was long gone. Spain’s recent years of dominance were encapsulated in a glorious and brutal 4-0 win over the Italians; the years of fear, the loathing, the Italian hex over the Spanish, now emphatically a thing of the past.