Italy won the World Cup beating West Germany in the Bernabeu in June 1982. It was an incredible feat for a team which seemed incapable of stringing two passes together in the group stage. Yet wins over the holders Argentina, favourites Brazil and then Poland, who they’d struggled to deal with in the First Phase, propelled them into the final.
They were worthy winners too, with the world marvelling at the emotional scenes as Paolo Rossi, Marco Tardelli and Alessandro Altobelli completed the win.
It had been 44 long years since they last lifted the trophy, and they then joined Brazil as three times winners. Those were heady days for a nation whose preparations had been hampered by a betting scandal which snared their star striker Rossi.
He came into the tournament having spent a ban away from the game for his involvement. During the first three games, he looked like he’d forgotten what football actually was. Just a few weeks later he ended as the top scorer.
With the World Cup safely deposited, they embarked on a qualifying campaign to take them all the way to France for the European Championships.
They were drawn into a group alongside Czechoslovakia, Romania, Cyprus and Sweden. The Czechs had been at Espana ’82 in England’s group but were not a patch on the ’76 side which became European Champions. Romania had pushed England close in qualifying for Spain, and really should’ve gone through instead. But Sweden hadn’t been at an international tournament since 1978 and Cyprus were the proverbial whipping boys. So, no real problems there. Or so everyone thought.
What would manager Enzo Bearzot do?
He’d improved the squad from ’78 with Gaetano Scirea and Fulvio Collovati providing defensive steel at the back. With Antonio Cabrini at left-back and Bruno Conti on the right wing, they posed a threat from all sides.
It is often said players peak around age 28 and seven of the starting line-up in Madrid were around that age. They could obviously provide much-needed experience and two years later would still not be considered old. Despite this, however, backup was necessary.
What happened next?
Three months after their success against the Germans, Italy lined up for the first time in a friendly against Switzerland in Rome. Ten of the 11 starters were in the team, with Giampiero Marini replacing Gabriele Oriali in midfield.
Switzerland were a decent side. They’d shocked England in June 1981 but weren’t expected to provide any meaningful challenge. They won 1-0. It ended a run of eight matches unbeaten for the Azzurri. But it was only a friendly so no need to panic.
Three weeks later Euro qualifying began.
Italy were at home to Czechoslovakia in the San Siro. Giuseppe Bergomi replaced Cabrini at left-back and Altobelli started up front alongside Rossi, instead of Francesco Graziani. Other than that it was the same world champion team.
Altobelli, who’d come off the bench to complete the scoring in Madrid, put Italy in from inside the opening 15 minutes. Good work on the right from Giancarlo Antognoni, saw him cross to the far post where Altobelli headed in largely unchallenged.
Czech defender, Jiří Sloup scored on his debut to level things by the break. The ball was crossed in from the right, and Sloup seemed to scuff his shot but it bounced past Dino Zoff, who never moved. Italy went back in front when Giamperio Marini’s shot along the ground from outside the area, took a deflection of Ján Kapko, who was picking up only his second cap, and left Luděk Mikloško stranded. Mikloško would end the decade a firm favourite at Upton Park. It was a shame for Kapko as the replay from behind the goal showed Marini’s shot going wide.
But they couldn’t hold onto their lead. This was a pretty inexperienced Czech team with just four players having played more than five times for their country. One of the newbies, Pavel Chaloupka, one of seven Bohemians Prague players, equalised six minutes later. In wet and muddy conditions, Janečka stormed forward, then played the ball in between the two central defenders. Chaloupka had run from deep and timed it perfectly to slot it past Zoff. The game ended 2-2.
These were the days before the international calendar, so there’d already been three matches before this one. Romania had beaten both Cyprus and Sweden at home. The Czechs were held at home by Sweden, so picking up a point in Milan was a boost for them.
By the time Italy took to the field again, Sweden had narrowly beaten Cyprus in Nicosia.
The Stadio Comunale was the venue for the visit of Romania. With only one qualifier from each group, it was clear this was going to be a crucial match, especially given the start the visitors had made to the campaign. Romania had just come off a 1-4 drubbing by East Germany, so spirits were high in the home camp.
With Scirea missing, Bearzot decided it was time to give a first cap to Franco Baresi. The Milan centre-back had been in the World Cup squad but had never set foot on the pitch in an Italian shirt. Baresi was just one of two changes from the World Cup-winning team, with Marini keeping his place and Graziani starting ahead of Altobelli.
As we would come to be accustomed to from a team with Baresi at the back, Italy kept a clean sheet. But frustratingly for the home fans, so did Romania. The chance of the match fell to Conti who managed to put his shot wide when faced with an open goal, six yards out.
Two matches, both at home, both draws. It wasn’t a stunning start but the locals were still unconcerned. Their boys were the best in the world, in any case.
In February 1983, Italy were confident of really getting their qualifying campaign underway as they travelled to Limassol to take on Cyprus. It was the first meeting between the two for 15 years, when Gigi Riva hit a hat-trick in a 5-0 win.
Claudio Gentile and Cabrini were back as full-backs with Franco Causio making a rare start. Italy now had seven players who’d earned over 50 caps each. Dino Zoff was making his 110th appearance.
On another difficult pitch (which resembled a beach) Italy dominated the first half. But through a series of missed chances and spirited keeping, it was goalless. Two minutes into the second half and Takis Mauris took the ideal opportunity to score his first goal for his country to give the home side a surprise lead. Ten minutes later Italy levelled. A cross from the right was headed into his own goal by Nikos Patikkis, under pressure from Graziani. The game ended 1-1 and little Cyprus had just held the World Champions to a draw.
To give some idea of the pedigree of Cyprus, they’d avoided defeat just twice in their previous 14 games going into this one. They’d only won once in their last 31 matches going back to 1975. This was a huge shock.
The only slight consolation was the Czechs only managed a 1-1 draw in Cyprus a month later.
There were mutterings around the country now. Four matches since the World Cup Final and they’d yet to win. Of the three goals to their name, just one had come from an Italian player.
What was going on?
Two months later came, what had now risen to become, the most important of their group. A trip to Bucharest.
Still, Bearzot kept with his class of ’82 and even brought back Roberto Bettega for his first cap for almost two years. Seven Juventus players in the line-up
By now there were concerns over the goalkeeper. Zoff was known to have a weakness over long shots, and this would prove his undoing once more. Midway through the first half, a free-kick was laid off to Ladislau Bölöni and he hit a low shot from 30 yards out for the only goal of the game.
Embarrassingly for Zoff, the Italian appearance record-holder, he had a pretty good view of the shot. It bounced twice before reaching him, yet inexplicably he attempted to stop it with his foot!!
Try as they might, Italy just weren’t firing. The attacking strength of Rossi, Conti, Bettega and Altobelli were just firing blanks.
On the same night, the Czechs hit Cyprus for six to move into second behind Romania. Italy, the World Champions, were back in fourth. Just three points from four matches.
A month later Sweden easily beat Cyprus, but the big result came in Bucharest. Romania were up against Czechoslovakia. A win for the Romanians would’ve given them a real grip on qualification for France. But Ladislav Vizek’s penalty just before halftime ended up as the only goal of the game.
At last some good news for the Italians. The Czechs and Romanians were locked on seven points from five matches. Italy then had to travel to Gothenburg in a must-win game.
Nearly 33,000 packed into the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. Sweden was stuffed with six players for whom the ground was home. Bearzot dropped Bettega and brought back Graziani.
Håkan Sandberg broke the deadlock just after the half-hour. It was a scrappy goal to concede. Italy failed to clear a corner and Sandberg came in at the far post to head the ball down and past Zoff. The home fans were jubilant at the break.
Torino’s Giuseppe Dossena replaced Antognoni at half-time but Italy struggled to gain any control of the game.
10 minutes into the second period, Glenn Strömberg doubled the home side’s lead and now Italy were staring down the barrel. Another poor goal to concede as Scirea was out-muscled in the air and the ball fell to Strömberg whose right foot shot from 12 yards out flew past Zoff’s right hand. For Sandberg and Strömberg it was a memorable game as both had scored their first goals for their country. Sweden had pulled off a famous 2-0 win.
Italy were in a perilous position, yet still, Bearzot stuck stubbornly with his favourite players. They needed to win their last three matches, and hope results went their way in the other games. But they’d only scored three goals thus far and drawn a blank in three of their five matches.
The last group match before the summer break saw Sweden’s winning run come to an end. In Solna, Rodion Cămătaru scored the only goal of the game to give Romania a 1-0 win and they were back on top of the group.
Italy now needed ‘snookers’.
In September 1983 the group resumed where it had left off, in Solna. This time Sweden were victorious beating Czechoslovakia. It was tight at the top between Romania, Sweden and Czechoslovakia with the Italians resigned to their fate.
Before their next qualifying match, which was crucial, the Italian FA had organised a friendly against Greece. In Bari Bearzot, at last, rang the changes. Giovanni Galli won his first cap in goal as he and Ivano Bordon shared the halves. They had an inexperienced centre-back pairing of Baresi and Pietro Vierchowod. Carlo Ancelotti was in midfield and Lazio’s Bruno Giordano came in for just his fifth cap.
Giordano made his mark too, with the opening goal after 15 minutes. His first for his country. Cabrini put them 2-0 up before the break and then Rossi completed the scoring. His first goal for his country since that famous night at the Bernabeu. A gap of 15 months.
Unbelievably, this was Italy’s first win since they won the World Cup, a run of six matches without a win.
Ten days later, Stadio San Paolo in Naples was the venue for a huge game as Sweden were the visitors. Even if Italy were to win their hopes of reaching France were slim beyond belief.
Bearzot had been impressed with his team from the Greece game, he kept the same one. Remarkably Zoff, Scirea, Collovati, Gentile, Antognoni, Tardelli and Graziani were all missing. For Zoff and Graziani, they would never be seen in Italian shirts again. For Zoff he drew a line under an amazing career of 112 caps.
The Italian boss was on a hiding to nothing. If his team won people would be asking why hadn’t he made changes earlier. If they lost, they could blame this inexperienced side.
In the first meeting, Strömberg had scored his first goal for Sweden. In seven minutes in the first half of this game, he scored his second and third. 27 minutes in and Italy were 0-2 down. What had happened to this team which was once considered best in show?
The first two goals saw some very un-Italian-like defending. With the first one, three players were drawn to the ball and left Strömberg on his own in the area. He didn’t miss. The second saw him given the time to waltz into the area unchallenged and fire a left-foot shot into the net.
In the second half, Thomas Sunesson made it 3-0. IngemarErlandsson skipped past Conti on the right and his ball to the far post was turned in by Sunesson. It was all far too easy and the home fans were not happy with the insipid performance. Six games into the qualifying competition and still no wins. Only three goals too. It was pitiful.
Sweden went to the top of the group but their campaign was over, and now had to sit and see if anyone could catch them. Romania did when they sneaked past Cyprus by a solitary goal.
A month later in Prague, things didn’t improve. Roma’s Ubaldo Righetti was handed his first cap in defence alongside Vierchowod. Tardelli was back in midfield. Antognoni came on as a substitute for what would be his 73rd, and last, appearance for Italy.
Dukla Prague left-back Petr Rada scored his first goal for the Czechs midway through the second half. It came from a free-kick just outside the area. They looked like they’d messed things up when suddenly Rada hit a fierce shot past Bordon. Rada then grabbed his second from the penalty spot. Italy lost 0-2. Four defeats in seven and they’d only scored in two of them. The Czechs were still pushing the Romanians for the qualifying place with Sweden still praying for miracles.
The two met in Bratislava and the 1-1 draw was enough for Romania to be installed as group winners.
An utterly forgettable campaign finally came to an end in Perugia when Cyprus visited. Altobelli was a starter. It was his 20th cap, but only his sixth start. He had scored the last time he started, and he did the same this time. There were still nervy times, the game was goalless at half-time before Altobelli broke the deadlock.
Cyprus then equalised from the spot to worry the locals again. The game was still level going into the last 10 minutes but then Cabrini put them back in front. Rossi then made things certain from the spot and at last, Italy had won a competitive game. It was their first since they beat West Germany almost 18 months earlier.
Romania had the Euros to look forward to for the following summer but now Italy just had friendlies all the way to the next World Cup.
Perhaps given the pressure heaped on Bearzot, this might have been considered a blessing.