Ever since the start of competitive football, the Italians have been known for having an impressive team. The ‘Azzurri’ are the second most successful team in the history behind the Brazilians, having won the FIFA World Cup four times (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006), as well as the European Championships in 1968.
The Italian national team played their first match on 15th May 1910, defeating France 6-2. The first and second games were to be the only ones that Italy would play before they adopted the national colour of blue.
Despite only a minimal amount of club football, the Italians had already become passionate about the game and it was often the subject of heated debates and confrontations. This entry into the social life of Italians, far from abating with time, only became more intense, as the country grew ever more fanatical about the sport.
After World War I, the sport developed even more and the national team became an integral part of Italy’s culture. Despite not entering the first World Cup because of the travelling costs to Uruguay, Italy was chosen to host the next World Cup in 1934. Because Italy and numerous other European countries did not travel for the previous World Cup, the winners of the previous tournament Uruguay curiously decided not to travel across to Italy (they are still the only holders to have not taken part in the following tournament).
After beating USA, Spain and Austria, Italy faced Czechoslovakia in the final in Rome. Trailing 1-0 going into the final stages of the match, they managed to equalise with Raimondo Orsi and then Angelo Schiavio scored a winner in extra time, making Italy only the second team to lift the World Cup.
Following their triumph, coach Vittorio Pozzo lead his side to gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Germany with a victory over Austria. Pozzo’s team continued its domination of football with legendary players such as Giuseppe Meazza and entered the 1938 World Cup in France as clear favourites. The Italians lived up to their hype, knocking out both Brazil and the hosts France on the way to reaching the final against Hungary. Italy took an early lead through Gino Colaussi before Hungary equalised. Just before half-time they scored twice to go in 3-1 ahead. Italy went on to win 4-2 and became the first country to retain the trophy and also the first to win the World Cup in a foreign country.
Italy’s passion for national football had to be stopped when they entered World War II in 1940. However, unlike almost every other country involved in the war, Italy continued their ‘Serie A’ league program. After the war, Italy’s national team started to play matches again and competed in the Olympic Games. However, most of their better players such as Meazza were either reaching the end of their careers or had retired and Italy had to start again from scratch. On top of this, in 1949 a plane crash killed the whole of the Torino FC team, Italy’s dominant club side and chief contributor to the national side. The pressure was on to quickly rebuild a team and attempt to retain their trophy in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
Unfortunately, the cumulative effect was too much and Italy were eliminated from the World Cup in the first round group stage, losing to Sweden. In the years leading up to the next World Cup, Italy attempted to regain some pride with big victories over France and Portugal, as well as morale boosting romps such as the 8-0 victory against USA. However, such victories came alongside less impressive performances and their erraticism duly showed in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. They lost to the hosts but beat Belgium in their group, bringing about a showdown with Switzerland again in a play-off stage to decide who went through to the knockout round. The Italians were humiliated 4-1 and went out of another tournament in the first round.
Even more embarrassment was to come for the ‘Azzurri’ when they lost to both Portugal and Northern Ireland in their qualification, meaning that they would not even participate in the 1958 World Cup. Interestingly, Italy was meant to play Northern Ireland earlier on in the qualifiers but the match was postponed. Both teams arrived at the ground to play the game but the referee and his linesmen were stuck in heavy fog so couldn’t make the game, therefore it ended up being played as a friendly match, which was drawn 2-2. If this had been the intended World Cup qualifier, Italy would have made it into the final tournament. This is, to date, the only World Cup that the country has not qualified for.
Italy had no problems in getting to Chile for the 1962 World Cup Finals, only having to beat Israel to progress. The joy was somewhat short-lived as they could only manage one win and one draw before losing to the hosts. Italy finished 3rd in their group and were eliminated again in the first round stage.
Even if Italy’s World Cup showings weren’t filling the nation with hope, the domestic clubs were becoming prominent in European football. AC Milan became the first Italian team to win the European Cup in 1963 and this was followed the year after when Inter Milan beat a formidable Real Madrid side, which included stars such as Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskas. They then proceeded to retain the trophy the year after by beating Benfica, who fielded rising star of the time, Eusebio.
This rise of Italian football at club level prompted expectation from the nation and they were widely tipped as favourites for the 1966 World Cup in England. Despite a good start with a victory over Chile, Italy again failed to impress and lost to the USSR. This was compounded when, needing only a victory over minnows and first time competitors North Korea, Italy lost to a goal from North Korea’s Pak Doo-Ik. They had been embarrassingly eliminated again and, when they arrived back in Italy, their team bus was pelted with rubbish as supporters showed their anger!
30 years since their last major trophy win, Italy proved all their doubters from the last World Cup wrong when they hosted the European Championships in 1968. After knocking out the holders USSR on a coin toss, they beat Yugoslavia in the final after a replay.
Italy kept this form and were unbeaten for two years going into the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Players such as goalkeeper Dino Zoff helped to make the Italian defence the meanest around, setting a standard which has endured even to this day. This seemingly impregnable defence was complimented by Luigi Riva, who was to become Italy’s highest ever goal-scorer, and the combination worked, with Italy finishing top of their group.
Surprisingly, in their three games they only scored one goal and didn’t let any in. However, they made up for this in the quarter-finals, where they beat hosts Mexico 4-1, and again in the semi-finals when they beat West Germany. The semi-final is regarded as one of, if not the, best ever World Cup match. Italy took an early lead but their opponents equalised in the last minutes of the match. A goalfest then ensued, with Gianni Rivera scoring the decisive goal in the 111th minute to win the game 4-3 for Italy. Despite reaching the final though, they were no match for the eventual winners Brazil, who ran out 4-1 winners in an epic performance.
History repeated itself after the World Cup, with Italy suffering as their star players’ powers declined with age. A poor showing as holders in the 1972 European Championships was followed by another six years later at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, being eliminated in the first round stage after losing to Poland. The decline continued as the side failed to even qualify for the 1976 European Championships.
In response, Italy bred newer players in their national side, remaining patient and allowing the squad to build experience. This tactic paid off as the 1978 World Cup saw the emergence of players such as Marco Tardelli and Paolo Rossi. The young team gave a good showing of themselves, finishing top of their ‘Group Of Death’ by beating both France and the eventual winners Argentina. In the second round, they held holders West Germany to a 0-0 draw, with Dino Zoff’s performance serving up more proof of his legendary status. Their World Cup ended eventually after losing to the ‘total football’ of the Netherlands, but they had made a notable impression.
They kept up this progression with a fourth place at the 1980 European Championships, and qualified for the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain. However, their involvement in the finals was shrouded with controversy. In 1980, Serie A was involved in a major match fixing scandal and many of the major players were given lengthy bans from football. One of those involved was Italy’s star striker Paolo Rossi, but his original three year ban was reduced down to just one year by the Italian FA, enabling his participation in the 1982 World Cup.
In the tournament, Italy made it through the first round stage despite drawing all three matches. They were then placed in a second round group with both Argentina and Brazil. Italy went on to beat Argentina 2-1 and even more impressively defeated Brazil 3-2, courtesy of a Rossi hat-trick. Two more goals from the controversial Italian meant that Italy beat Poland in the semi-finals and went through to a final against West Germany. Yet again Rossi gave the Italians the lead and this was added to by Marco Tardelli and Allessandro Altobelli before West Germany scored a consolation goal to make it 3-1 at the final whistle. 44 years after their last victory, Italy became the second team to win the trophy for the third time. That World Cup Final created possibly one of the iconic images of any World Cups after Tardelli’s goal. Despite all the controversy about Paolo Rossi, he ended up as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals.
Like many teams before, Italy failed to successfully defend their trophy in Mexico in 1986. After a draw against the eventual winners Argentina and their new superstar Diego Maradona in the first round group stage, Italy progressed to the the second round but were knocked out 2-0 by Michel Platini’s France.
Italy were the favourites for the World Cup in 1990, being the hosts for the first time in 66 years. They started well, winning all three group matches against Austria, USA and Czechoslovakia without conceding a goal. This was a theme which was to continue throughout the tournament, with many teams favouring defence.
In the second round Italy faced Uruguay and toiled for long periods of the game before Salvatore Schillaci scored and Aldo Serena made it two. Schillaci was a controversial choice for the squad as he had never played for the country before. Immediately he made an impact coming off the bench on his debut against Austria to score. Schillaci proved to be a vital part of the Italian team and went on to score six goals in six games and became the competition’s top scorer. He scored the goal which eventually ended the Republic Of Ireland’s hopes and sent Italy through to a semi-final against Argentina. Despite scoring again though, it wasn’t enough as Italy lost on penalties to go out, although a victory over England secured them third place. This was the start of a cruel relationship between the nation and penalty shoot-outs which was to carry on for the next 16 years.
After missing out on Euro 1992, Italy qualified for the next World Cup without any problems but suffered a slow start by losing to the Republic Of Ireland in a rematch of the 1990 quarter-final. A draw and a win over Mexico and Norway respectively meant that Italy scraped through to the second round by being one the best second placed teams. Two goals from Roberto Baggio got Italy past Cameroon in the next round after extra-time and his late winner helped them to beat Spain. Facing surprise team Bulgaria in the semi-finals, two more goals from Roberto Baggio helped them through to play Brazil in a replay of the 1970 World Cup Final. After a tense match, which ended 0-0, the game became the first World Cup Final to be decided on penalties. Misses from Daniele Massaro and the nation’s hero Roberto Baggio meant Italy lost again on penalties.
Italy weren’t able to maintain their success at the 1996 European Championships in England but rediscovered it by beating Austria, Cameroon and Norway to reach the quarter final stage in the World Cup 1998. However, yet again they were to be thwarted by the penalty shoot-outs when they were eliminated by eventual winners France. This was the beginning of a long rivalry as, after reaching the final of Euro 2000 courtesy of heroics from Gianluigi Buffon in the penalty shoot-out with co-hosts Holland, a golden goal from David Trézéguet secured the game for France, leaving Italy crestfallen again.
Back with the World Cup, Italy were full of hope going into the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. After losing an early game against Croatia, they still made it through to a second round match against co-hosts South Korea. Dubious refereeing decisions meant a seemingly good Italian goal was disallowed while striker Francesco Totti was curiously sent off and, more importantly, Italy suffered a repeat of the giant killing of 1966, when Ahn Jung-Hwan scored a golden-goal to knock the Italians out of the tournament. In Euro 2004, the victim complex was further strengthened after the last group match between Denmark and Sweden finished 2-2, the only result which would see both sides through and eliminate Italy in the process.
World Cup Winners Again
Just like the 1982 World Cup, Italy entered the tournament in 2006 amid controversy over match-fixing in the Serie A. The campaign was decidedly muted at first, with a victory against Ghana in the first game followed by a draw against USA. However, the team improved and they proceeded to beat Czech Republic and Australia to reach the Quarter Finals where they brushed aside Ukraine 3-0. A tense semi-final against the hosts Germany followed and it stayed even until Fabio Grosso scored in the 119th minute, mimicking the famous Tardelli celebration of ’82. Another goal from Alessandro Del Piero sent the Azzurri through to their sixth World Cup final.
Just eight minutes into the final in Berlin, Marco Materazzi, who was to become a prominent figure later on, gave away a penalty which French captain Zinedine Zidane cheekily scored. On the twentieth minute Materazzi scored Italy’s equaliser from a corner to make it 1-1. In a close match, both teams toiled but could not find a winning goal and the match went into extra-time. With just ten minutes left in extra-time, Materazzi received a head butt to the chest from Zidane, who was playing his last ever match before retirement. Zidane was promptly sent-off and ever since there has been speculation as to what Materazzi said to provoke him.
Despite the extra man, Italy couldn’t find a winning goal and the game went into penalties, yet again for Italy. However, David Trézéguet, who scored the golden-goal in the Euro 2000 final, missed his attempt while Italy managed to score all five and win their fourth World Cup and overcome their poor record in penalty shoot-outs. Manager Marcello Lippi resigned after the victory, stating the he had done everything possible with the Italian team.
Italy have recently faced France again whilst qualifying for Euro 2008 in Austria and Poland but were not as successful under their new manager Robert Donadoni after drawing and losing. Italy have however managed to top their group and qualify for the tournament.