When the Romantics of Brazil imploded in Barcelona’s Sarria Stadium against an unfancied Italy in the second group phase of the 1982 World Cup, the purists’ dreams died, and Italy’s eventual triumph in Madrid just days later was greeted with largely grudging acknowledgment.
Italy’s victory in Spain is often advanced as some kind of immoral victory of Roundheads over Cavaliers. In truth, it was no such thing.
The reality is that Enzo Bearzot had been dedicating himself to such a moment, and to free-flowing football, from the day he took over as head coach of the Azzuri in 1977, having originally been installed as co-coach alongside Fulvio Bernardini after a disastrous 1974 World Cup campaign.
After failing to qualify for the European championships in Yugoslavia in 1976, Bearzot ascended to the top job and sole command of the national team. From then on he carefully scouted the cream of Serie A for a nucleus of players that would eventually claim the world crown in Spain 1982.
The core of that team travelled across the Atlantic with him four years earlier for the most controversial tournament of them all: Argentina ‘78. Following the South American sojourn, a creditable fourth place finish at home in the 1980 European Championships bolstered the belief that this was a team to be reckoned with.
In qualifying for Argentina ’78 Bearzot’s men surmounted a group containing England, Finland and Luxembourg. Eventually qualifying on goal difference, Italy pipped England to the top spot from UEFA Group 2.
In truth, England were never quite as bad as their critics claimed. The demise of Don Revie half way through the campaign and the failure to qualify for a second successive tournament compounded the sense of hopelessness and confusion in the FA which was already developing an inferiority complex about the technical quality of the “continentals”.
Holland’s 1977 visit to Wembley for a friendly had been a particularly chastening lesson for all concerned with the English game, as the 2-0 defeat at the hands of Cruyff’s team was viewed by many as equally epoch-defining as the 6-3 defeat to Hungary 24 years earlier.
Failure to qualify for Argentina had merely exacerbated the strong sense of decline at international level, even though the domestic game appeared in rude health, with Liverpool following their maiden European triumph of 1977 with another at Wembley the following year.
Liverpool’s European club victories, from a team of ostensibly British – rather than English – makeup highlighted the fact that the national team was fundamentally lacking in key areas. As Revie’s son Duncan observed, when comparing his father’s Leeds and England teams
He didn’t have a Bremner or a Giles and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he didn’t have two players like that for the England team.
So much for England then. Having scored 18 goals to England’s 15 in qualification, it was Enzo Bearzot’s Italy that boarded for Argentina. Italy arrived in Argentina minus the man who had been the mainstay of their defence for a decade.
A composed, attacking left-back who transcended catenaccio itself, Giacinto Facchetti had made his 94th and final appearance in 1977, hanging up his boots at the age of 35. His graceful style had been an influence on Franz Beckenbauer among others, but for Argentina ’78 his retirement meant the inclusion of Juventus’ 25 year-old Gaetano Scirea, 11 years younger but of the same mould.
Drawn in the strongest group along with hosts Argentina, France and Hungary, Italy were based in Buenos Aires and Mar Del Plata. On 2nd June the Azzuri kicked off Group One with an afternoon start against France.
With barely time for an Italian to touch the ball, Didier Six hared off down the left wing and crossed to Bernard Lacombe whose header thundered past the left hand of the sprawling Zoff: 1-0 France after 38 seconds. It was then the fastest goal in World Cup history. Italy’s calm, authoritative come-back was typical of the steel that Bearzot’s style had imbued in the side.
On a soft pitch which was cutting up relatively early on, Italy also displayed something else. In the words of FIFA’s pen portrait of Bearzot
the world saw another side to Italy, who displayed a much more attractive style due to the influence of promising young talents such as Paolo Rossi and Antonio Cabrini.
In reality, as Brian Glanville had noted, Bearzot had been “detoxifying” his squad from the stultifying tactical strictures of Serie A since he took over, although it had taken time for the side to knit together. The eventual 2-1 victory over France in their opening game, thanks to goals from Rossi and Zaccharelli, was evidence of the marriage of steel and style.
On 6th June Italy kicked off in the early afternoon once more, this time against Hungary. Italy’s 3-1 victory, thanks to goals from Rossi, Bettega and Bennetti, put them top of the group while condemning Hungary to an early plane home.
Moving on to Buenos Aires for their final group game against the hosts on 10th June, the Italians kicked off in the evening. As the Argentines received their usual cacophonous reception, Italy calmly went about their business.
After the Italian anthem Inno di Mameli had received a generous hand from the home fans in the pre-game ceremonials, Italy played slick, short-passing football that the hosts found difficult to counter. Clearly the superior outfit on the night, Bettega’s 67th minute strike after a flowing move was enough to hand the two points to Italy.
With six points, Italy topped Group One, although the host nation, having been far from impressive and enjoying considerable refereeing largesse against France and Hungary had also done enough to secure their passage.
As was the case in West Germany four years earlier, a second group phase supplanted the traditional knock-out stages of the tournament. From two pools of four the eventual group winners would then face each other in the final.
Italy’s triumph in Group One placed them in Buenos Aires and Cordoba for the all-European second phase Group A containing Holland, West Germany and Austria. Over in Mendoza and Rosario in Group B, Poland alone disturbed the Latin American contingent of Argentina, Brazil and Peru.
In thick fog on 14th June Italy began their second phase with a tight encounter against West Germany. Were it not for a combination of bad luck and shoddy finishing Roberto Bettega would have completed a hat-trick. As it was, honours ended even with a point a piece following the goalless draw; a source of frustration for the crowd as goals rained down in Cordoba during Holland’s 5-1 demolition of Austria.
Remaining in Buenos Aires for the Austrian fixture, Bearzot’s unit outplayed their Alpine neighbours, coming away with a 1-0 victory. A beautifully worked one-touch pass and move duet between Franco Causio and Paolo Rossi ended up with Rossi slotting the ball past Koncilia in the Austrian goal.
The movement was fluid and the defence looked formidable. As Gerald Sinstadt remarked on ITV following another thwarted Austrian attempt on the Italian goal, the Austrians ran into “a tangle of barbed wire outside their penalty area”.
When the Dutch drew 2-2 in their game with the reigning champions Germany in Cordoba on the same day, Group A’s final matchup between Holland and the Italians three days later was effectively a semi-final.
With Holland having superior goal difference Italy had to win, while the Dutch could settle for the draw which would seal their place in the final. Things began well in Buenos Aires as Italy made the initial running. When Bettega chased down a through ball with Schrijvers to beat, Ernie Brandts slid the ball into his own goal to give the Italians the lead.
Six minutes into the second half Brandts made good his first-half error with a thundering 20 yard strike. As the game got tighter and Holland eased back into their rhythm things got tastier out on the field. Tardelli and Bennetti both reacted to Dutch provocation and received bookings that would rule them out of any final appearance.
Thirty one minutes into the second half, as Italy backed off and continued to play defensively – as a watching Jack Charlton feared they would – Arie Haan picked up the ball over forty yards out and beat Zoff from distance. The scoreline remained 2-1 and Holland made it through to their second consecutive final.
Disappointment aside, Italy, along with Brazil, contrived to make the third place play-off game an event worth watching. As play ebbed and flowed, Franco Causio’s first-half header was cancelled out by brilliant second-half strikes from Nelinho and Dirceu. Unusually, it was a game worthy of a final itself as skill and spirit enhanced a fixture traditionally known for its epic sense of anti-climax.
Italy had surpassed expectations in Argentina ’78. They had played with a flair which augmented their traditional qualities of defensive organisation and physical rigour.
Moreover, it was a team built in the image of the philosophy of the coach Enzo Bearzot. He had long yearned to cut his team loose from the moorings of catennacio and now he finally had the players to do so.
The job was not quite done yet, though, as the crowning achievement would come in Madrid four years later. As if to contradict the traditional stereotype of the Italian game, Bearzot defined his philosophy of the game in a quite different way:
For me, football should be played with two wingers, a centre forward and a playmaker. That’s the way I see the game. I select my players and then I let them play the game, without trying to impose tactical plans on them. You can’t tell Maradona, ‘Play the way I tell you.’ You have to leave him free to express himself. The rest will take care of itself
The 1978 vintage was a young team, too, having being built for the long haul by Bearzot and his staff. Zoff, then 36, Romeo Bennetti, 32, and Claudio Sala, 30, were the only players past their twenties in a squad of 22.
If it was a success for the nation the ’78 tournament was a coup for the city of Turin, too. Juventus contributed nine players to the squad while neighbours Torino added six more. The 20-year-old Antonio Cabrini was named Young Player of the Tournament, while Paolo Rossi’s formidable movement and instinct showed signs of things to come.
Further acclaim came in the form of that sage of World Soccer magazine, Eric Batty, who included both Causio and Bettega in his World XI for 1978. All appeared to augur well for an assault on the world crown in 1982.
If the players were due their credit then one man, above all, must be acknowledged as the progenitor of Italy’s late seventies renaissance. When Enzo Bearzot died in 2010 one of his favourite footballing sons, Paolo Rossi, was in no doubt of the debt he owed the man from the Udine region. The 1982 top scorer stated simply:
Enzo Bearzot has been one of the greatest Italians of the 20th century, of this there is no doubt. For me he was like a father. I owe him everything, without him I would not have done what I did. He was an incredibly honest person.