Italy: The wilderness years as world champions 1982-86 (part two)


This is the second part of my look at Italy’s fortunes post Spain ’82. They’d just conducted a very poor qualifying campaign for Euro ’84, which ended in failure. Manager Enzo Bearzot kept his job, though. He’d been reluctant to make changes to the World Cup winning side, but now as they faced two years of friendlies in preparation for Mexico ’86 he was forced to experiment.


1983 had been an awful year for Bearzot. Several of his triumphant 1982 side had retired. He was struggling to find suitable replacements, although Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi looked promising in the defence. But goals were a worry.

A friendly against Mexico in February gave Bearzot a chance to experiment and really build for the next World Cup, to be held in the Central American country.

He still couldn’t make up his mind on his best goalkeeper after Dino Zoff’s retirement. Ivano Bordon and Giovanni Galli again played 45 minutes each.

After the gloom of the Euro qualifiers, the mood was immediately lifted when Salvatore Bagni scored after just 25 seconds. Giuseppe Dossena did well down the left wing and his cross into the box was turned in by Bagni, who was stood on the penalty spot. It was his first international goal.

After 12 minutes they were two goals to the good. Paolo Rossi pounced on hesitation at the back, took the ball round the keeper, and fired it into the roof of the net. The ground was rocking.

Just before half-time, they were three-up. A ball  from Pietro Vierchowod found Alessandro Altobelli down the left. He made it into the area and when he squared it into the six-yard box, Rossi slipped his marker to score his second. Then just as the Mexicans were hoping to limit the damage before the break, Antonio Cabrini lead a counter attack. The Italians stormed forward, with several players sensing goals were on offer. Cabrini’s ball into the area was hit straight at the keeper. Inexplicably, he spilled it and there was Europe’s ultimate poacher, Rossi, to complete a first-half hat-trick.

Rossi had gone over a year without scoring for Italy after the World Cup. Now he had four in five. Bruno Conti made it 5-0 early in the second half, but unfortunately for the jubilant fans, there were no more goals.

Mexico had been abject, but where had this Italian team been for the past two years?

A month later they travelled to Istanbul to meet Turkey. Altobelli started and again was on the scoresheet. Cabrini continued his impressive recent scoring record and Italy were two goals to the good inside 20 minutes. These two games had seen debuts for strikers such as Sergio Battistini (Milan) and Antonio Sabato (Inter), both as substitutes without either making any real impression.

In April they were up against Czechoslovakia, who they’d failed to beat in either meeting in the recent qualifying competition. They couldn’t beat them this time in Verona either. Salvatore Bagni scored in a 1-1 draw.

Daniele Massaro (Fiorentina) was recalled to the team two years after his only other appearance. Rossi and Altobelli were again upfront. Bearzot operated three at the back with Baresi joining Vierchowod and Gaetano Scirea.

In May, Italy were in Zurich to play West Germany in a special match to commemorate FIFA’s 80th anniversary.

West Germany was in far better shape than their opponents. Conti was alongside Altobelli in attack, but neither found the net with Hans-Peter Briegel scoring the only goal. It was a towering header from a right-wing free-kick from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

Four days later they embarked on a North American tour. First up was a game in Toronto against Canada. Claudio Gentile started, earning his 71st cap. It was to be his last. In contrast, it was also the first appearance for future manager Roberto Mancini.

Altobelli scored his seventh for his country, with Sergio Battistini grabbing his first in a 2-0 win.

Their second game of the tour was at the Giants Stadium against the United States. It was a disappointing 0-0 draw.

They weren’t in action again until September when Sweden arrived at San Siro. Franco Tancredi was given his debut in goal in a reasonably experienced side. Rossi was back after he’d missed the North American trip. Antonio Cabrini’s goal won it. He now had four in his last eight appearances. Not bad for a left-back.

He was on target again in November when they drew 1-1 with Switzerland. This game saw the debut of Verona’s Antonio Di Gennaro.

They finished the year with a home match against Poland. The Poles still boasted the likes of Zbigniew Boniek, Waldemar Matysik and Wladyslaw Żmuda. But goals from Altobelli and Di Gennaro (his first) won it for Italy. Altobelli’s goal was a great bit of individual skill. Pietro Fanna curled a left foot cross into the far post. Altobelli, under pressure from a defender, flicked the ball up in the air back over his head. As it dropped he met it calmly on the half-volley through Jacek Kazimierski’s legs. Aldo Serena of Torino won his first cap as a sub for Altobelli. Marco Tardelli was captain for the night in his 75th match.

1984 had been a far better year than the previous one. Just one defeat in nine matches and at last the goals were going in.


The new year saw Italy begin their international schedule in Dalymount Park, Dublin. Rossi scored his 19th goal for his country when he converted a penalty after just five minutes.

Altobelli put them two up inside 20 minutes. This was the game where Paul McGrath made his debut for the Republic of Ireland as a sub for Mark Lawrenson. He was one of three debutants, including QPR’s John Byrne. His QPR teammate, Gary Waddock, scored the goal of the night with a fierce left-foot drive from about 25 yards. But it was little more than a consolation goal for the Irish and Italy started the year with a 2-1 win.

A month later they were in Athens to take on Greece. Bearzot kept the same side. Not really one to keep chopping & changing was he?

The game was fairly forgettable with far too many wild shots from outside the box from both sides. It ended goalless.

His next side for the April meeting with Portugal in Ascoli, was again largely unchanged. He alternated halves with Franco Tancredi and Galli in goal again. Fulvio Collovati came on as a sub for Giuseppe Bergomi, but other than that it was the same team.

Bruno Conti put Italy in front just before the break, and their lead was doubled in the second half by Rossi from the spot. He’d won the penalty himself after a rather theatrical dive from Jaime Pacheco’s shoulder barge. No one knew it at the time, but this was the last goal Rossi would ever score for his country.

This stretched the unbeaten run to eight now. The summer saw them compete in a showcase tournament in Mexico. A year before the world arrived on their doorstep, Mexico hosted the Ciudad de Mexico Cup. England joined Italy and the hosts before they went on to take part in the Azteca 2000 Tournament with Mexico and West Germany.

All the matches were played in the Azteca Stadium. The first one wasn’t as well attended as the organisers had hoped, but Bearzot was finally encouraged to look at some more players. He used 17 in the game with Giuseppe Galderisi making his debut. He was one of four Hellas Verona players in the side. Another of them, Antonio Di Gennaro scored Italy’s goal which cancelled out Javier Aguirre’s opener in a 1-1 draw.

Four days later Italy were in action against England. A particularly difficult game for both countries. This came just after the Bradford Fire and the Heysel Stadium disaster, which affected people from both nations. Both sets of players stood alongside one another before the kick-off. Bearzot had chosen Collovati and Giuseppe Baresi as the centre-back pairing against Mexico. Now he employed three at the back with Vierchowod coming in.

Only 7,000 turned up and the game seemed to live up to people’s low expectations. England had the better of the chances in the first half. Terry Butcher had a free header in the area which he put wide. Then Mark Hateley, who was plying his trade in Milan, also headed narrowly wide. In the second half, the best chance of the game saw Bryan Robson shoot over from six yards out with only the keeper to beat.

Then on 73 minutes, Italy took the lead. Kenny Sansom made a hash of a clearance and Bagni curled his shot over Peter Shilton into the top corner. It would be a bad omen for England as their keeper, making his 71st appearance, appeared to have lead in his boots. Twelve months later Diego Maradona and Argentina discovered he just couldn’t jump on Mexican pitches. However, within 60 seconds England were level. John Barnes, who’d come on for Chris Waddle, floated a lovely ball into the box for Hateley to head in.

Then just before the final whistle Italy had a penalty for a rather soft-looking challenge from debutant Gary Stevens on Vierchowod. Altobelli converted it, for a 2-1 win.

Mexico beat England 1-0 in the final game to end on the same points as Italy.

Italy were now unbeaten in 10 matches and their spirits were much improved. Euro ’84 was all but forgotten.

They then embarked on the new season, which would end in the World Cup in Mexico. They had five matches to prepare for, beginning with the visit of Norway in September.

Bearzot still couldn’t decide his best keeper with Galli and Tancredi sharing the halves. Altobelli was again leading the line. The manager was still undecided on his best partner, with Napoli’s Bruno Giordano and Giuseppe Galderisi also sharing halves.

Altobelli put Italy in front with his 11th international goal. Conti, on the right wing, crossed in with his left was poorly judged by future Tottenham keeper, Erik Thorstvedt. It went over his head and Altobelli nodded it into the empty net. With half-time approaching Arne Larsen Økland returned the scoreline to parity, heading in Vidar Davidsen’s cross from the right. Then with just two minutes of the first period remaining, Davidsen gave the visitors a surprise lead. Bearzot brought on Tancredi, Tardelli and Galderisi after the break but Italy couldn’t find an equaliser and the unbeaten run had come to an end.

Worse was to follow in November when they travelled to Chorzów to take on Poland, in a repeat of the 1982 World Cup Semi-Final. Daniele Massaro came in for only his fifth cap in three years. Gianluca Vialli was handed his first cap when he replaced Altobelli late on. Poland scored early with Dariusz Dziekanowski being allowed to run at the defence then unleash a fierce left-foot drive from outside the box. The home side defended their lead all the way for a 1-0 win.

They didn’t have another game for three months. Attention turned to the draw for Mexico. As defending champions they were seeded in Group One. Drawn out alongside them was the 1978 winners, Argentina. All of Italy was a buzz with the prospect of taking on Diego Maradona, who had moved to Napoli after Euro ’84. Bulgaria and South Korea made up the group.


February saw a repeat of the 1982 World Cup Final when they welcomed West Germany to Avellini. Galli and Tancredi again shared the keeping duties. Cabrini had the captain’s armband with Carlo Ancelotti coming into midfield.

Aldo Serena scored the first international goal of his career to put the home side in front. Altobelli ran clear on the right and as Toni Schumacher came out, he lifted the ball over him. It was going wide and needed Serena to come in at the back post to turn it in. But once again they couldn’t hold onto their lead, as before the break Matthias Herget levelled things from a free-kick just outside the ‘D’.

Then with 15 minutes to go Hans-Peter Briegal, who played for Verona at the time, was brought down by Cabrini and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Lothar Matthäus converted the kick to give the visitors the win. Italy had now lost three in a row and seemed to be back to where they were at the end of Euro ’84 qualifying.

With the finals on the horizon, they entertained Austria in Udine. Gianluca Vialli made his first start of his career with Rossi returning up front. Roma’s Sebastiano Nela won his second cap, almost a year after his first.

Things looked to remain on the bleak side when Toni Polster headed the visitors in front after just three minutes. Rossi lasted just 25 minutes when Galderisi replaced him. It looked like he would struggle to make his third World Cup.

10 minutes after the break Ancelotti threaded a great pass through the defence and Altobelli equalised. Di Gennaro then grabbed the winner with a stunning strike from outside the area. He flicked the ball up with his left foot, then met it on the volley, giving Klaus Lindenberger no chance. Finally, the losing run was at an end.

Their final game before Mexico was in Naples where China were the opponents for the first meeting between the two countries.

Bearzot really shuffled his pack for this one, using 19 players. Rossi started the match and was replaced by Galderisi at half-time. Despite being in the squad for Mexico, he would never pull on an Italian shirt again.

Scirea was captain for the night with Fernando De Napoli winning his first cap. Italy won the game with two goals in 10 minutes. Di Gennaro scored another one from outside the box. Then Conti and Ancelotti combined well on the right and Ancelotti’s cross was headed in by Altobelli.

Altobelli had been Bearzot’s most frequent selection since Spain ’82, with 10 goals in 26 appearances.

Salvatore Bagni, who moved from Inter to Napoli during this period, was one of three players who were selected 23 times (Cabrini and Conti, the other two).

Another Inter player, Pietro Fanna seemed particularly unlucky. Even though he picked up 14 caps during this time, he was only selected as a starter twice.

Three weeks later Italy’s next match opened the Mexico World Cup. Bearzot didn’t pull out any surprises from his hat for the squad, other than uncapped Walter Zenga as the third keeper.

Torino’s Giuseppe Dossena could consider himself most unlucky. He was in the squad for Spain, without making an appearance. He only missed three matches by the summer of ’85. Yet was never seen again. That is until the first international after Mexico, by which point Bearzot had stepped down.

Italy were much changed from the two World Cups. Just nine players from the ’82 squad were still there four years later.

For coverage of how Italy fared in Mexico ’86 make sure you catch my special series of a day-by-day account starting 31st May 2022.