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Azzurri What Went Wrong

Written by Shahan Petrossian

Shahan Petrossian asks What went wrong with the Azzuri (Before, after and even during the 1982 World Cup?) The 1982 Italy squad is forever immortalized in history as World Cup Champions, Italy’s first in the post-war era. The names Paolo Rossi, Dino Zoff, Bruno Conti, Antonio Cabrini and manager Enzo Bearzot are forever part of Italian soccer folklore. Their victory over the purists’ favorite Brazil (containing Zico, Socrates, Falcao, etc.) regularly ranks as one of the greatest World Cup victories ever.

However, what is rarely mentioned is Italy’s lacklustre and poor displays in the final qualifiers for the World Cup, the friendlies before the tournament and even in the first round itself. More astonishingly was their inability to win a single match for over a year after the World Cup win, which included a humiliating away tie to Cyprus months after the World Cup.

To analyze all this, one must go back to the 1978 World Cup, when this Italian squad’s foundations were laid.

Enzo Bearzot was initially appointed as manager in 1975. However, he jointly managed with Fulvio Bernardini as technical director. Starting the fall of 1977, he was appointed as sole manager.

Many of the players who took part in the 1978 tournament were also present in 1982.

These included the 40-year-old goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff. Many critics had considered him too old at 36 during the 1978 tournament after he conceded many long-range goals vs. Holland and Brazil, but he was always Bearzot’s first choice. Inter’s Ivano Bordon had been elevated from third choice goalkeeper in 1978 to being Zoff’s understudy for this tournament. The third choice was now Giovanni Galli of Fiorentina.

Juventus defenders Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile and as libero the late Gaetano Scirea were ever present.

aolo rossi dino zoff bruno conti antonio cabrini enzo bearzot azzurri italy world cup 1982 shahan petrossian zani 3.

The notable change from 1978 was the inclusion of AC Milan (and later Inter) defender Fulvio Collovati as central defensive partner of Scirea, at the expense of Mauro Belluggi.

Juventus midfielder Marco Tardelli and Fiorentina’s Giancarlo Antognoni were still first choices in their positions. Antognoni had missed most of the season after a collision with a goalkeeper in a league match had left him with a double fracture to the skull. So severe was the collision that apart from the internal bleeding, it also caused Antognoni’s heart to stop beating for almost half a minute.

Former Juventus star Franco Causio was now a substitute; in his position the starter was AS Roma’s Bruno Conti. The defensive midfielder position was also up for grabs with Romeo Benetti being out of national team reckoning. His position was disputed between Inter pair of Gabriele Oriali and Francesco Marini, with Oriali being the eventual starter.

Had Juventus’ Roberto Bettega not been injured in the fall of 1981, he would most certainly have been a starter in the team.

Bearzot could count on Francesco Graziani, the former Torino striker and now a Fiorentina player as cover.

Bearzot’s most surprising selection was the inclusion of striker Paolo Rossi, the revelation of the 1978 tournament. He had been suspended in 1980 as part of a match fixing scandal. He had just returned to action only weeks prior to the World Cup. He had in fact only played three league matches with Juventus. However, Bearzot knew that he could be counted upon. Added to this mix were Inter striker Alessandro Altobelli, Torino midfielder Giuseppe Dossena, Fiorentina defender Pietro Vierchowod, 18-year-old Inter defender Giuseppe Bergomi, Cagliari’s Franco Selvaggi and uncapped players such as AC Milan’s Franco Baresi and Fiorentina’s young striker Daniele Massaro. Italy began the World Cup qualifiers in impressive fashion by winning its first four matches (all 2-0 wins) vs. Denmark, Yugoslavia, Greece and Luxembourg.

However, starting 1981, Italy started with the poor displays. An unimpressive Mundialito tournament was followed by heavy losses to a European Selection in a charity match and to Denmark in a World Cup Qualifier. The year was concluded with further poor displays vs. Greece (1-1 tie) and a 1-0 home win vs. Luxembourg.

Italy did not fare better in early 1982 with friendly losses vs. France and East Germany and a tie vs. Switzerland.

Italy went into the 1982 Tournament without still a win in the calendar year. The first round of the World Cup was just as unimpressive as Italy tied all its three Group matches. A scoreless draw vs. Poland was followed by one-one ties vs. Peru and Cameroon.

Italy was tied in points with Cameroon, but qualified at their expense due to having scored more goals.

Italy was placed in the second round with South Americans Brazil and Argentina.

It was starting this round that Italy was transformed to world-beaters.

After the first round, in protest against Media’s criticism of bonuses received for qualifying to the second phase, Italy’s squad voted 18-4 to boycott the media. The media had voiced disapproval over the bonus payments after a mediocre first round display.

Many claim this as a catalyst for their turn-around. Without the media pressure they were able to concentrate on their game.

Italy defeated defending Champion Argentina 2-1 in the first group game, a match remembered for Claudio Gentile’s violent marking of Diego Maradona. Gentile once remarked that Soccer is “not a game for ballerinas” and his equally brutal treatment of Brazil’s Zico in the next game confirmed it (He ripped Zico’s shirt). This next match vs. Brazil was the match that Paolo Rossi came to life in and scored a hat trick and single handedly eliminated the most impressive team of the tournament. This win was followed by a 2-0 win in the semifinal vs. Poland (2 Rossi goals) and a victory in the Final vs. West Germany (3-1 win) with Rossi scoring his sixth goal, and even Franco Causio entering the match in the last minute.

paolo rossi dino zoff bruno conti antonio cabrini enzo bearzot azzurri italy world cup 1982 shahan petrossian.

These four wins were incredibly the only four wins of the calendar year. Italy followed the World Cup with virtually the same players with a home loss to Switzerland and two home draws vs. Czechoslovakia and Romania in the European Championship qualifiers.

The year 1983 was simply catastrophic, a humiliating 1-1 draw with minnows Cyprus was followed by losses vs. Romania and Sweden, which virtually eliminated Italy from the European Championship finals.

Italy managed to defeat Greece in a friendly in the fall of 1983 (their first win since the World Cup). This was followed by its worst home defeat in 28 years vs. Sweden in Naples (0-3 loss) and another loss vs. Czechoslovakia. A final win vs. Cyprus at the end of the year was merely a consolation. So how can one explain an impressive run of four matches during a tournament sandwiched between two dismal calendar years? How can a team defeat Brazil and West Germany yet struggle vs. Cyprus a few months later? The English Football Writer, Brian Glanville, who is very knowledgeable about Italian Soccer having lived and worked there once credited the late Enzo Bearzot’s ability to “detoxify” the Italian players from the pressures of Serie A. That might explain how he was able to make the team raise its game for few weeks. As for what happened later, perhaps after winning a World Cup the team was simply burnt-out and not hungry anymore…who knows. Certainly, Rossi never reached the same heights. Zoff, Antognoni, Causio, Oriali, Graziani and Bettega played their last matches for Italy in 1983.

Bearzot managed Italy in the 1986 World Cup and resigned after a disappointing tournament. His successor Azeglio Vicini naturally turned to his under-21 graduates to start a new era for Italy. Enzo Bearzot passed away on December 21st of 2010, and will always be remembered as the World Cup-winning coach, but his achievement in those short few weeks seems even more impressive given the condition of the team before and after.


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