The Brazil of 1982 is often touted as one of the best teams never to win the World Cup. Well in Azeglio Vicini’s Azzurri of 1990, Italy has its own candidate for such an honour.
Hosted in the peninsula, La Nazionale had a great chance of recapturing the trophy for a record fourth time and they undoubtedly had the squad to do it.
They had created the basis of a team during an impressive 1988 European Championships and those young players had now matured, two years on, ready to take on the best the world had to offer.
To the dismay and despair of the majority of the tifosi, the team fell at the penultimate hurdle, as the semi final defeat to Argentina was the peak Vicini’s men had almost scaled only to fall just as the summit was within their grasp. However, this tournament gave birth to one of the world’s finest ever players and a set of bulging eyes that will forever live long in the memory of every World Cup fan.
Italy had finished top of their first phase group, winning all three matches without really breaking their stride. With the first round safely negotiated, the Azzurri had a smooth passage to the semi final as they brushed aside Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland.
The wins came courtesy of eventual tournament top scorer but little known Sicilian, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci and their soon to become new hero – Roberto Baggio. Schillaci’s six goals, his expressive face and mannerisms became a national treasure and Baggio’s wonder goal against the Czechs is often voted into many World Cup top 10 goals of all time.
However, drama and controversy reached boiling point against Diego Maradona’s reigning champions, Argentina. The tie had become slightly ‘piquant’ as the game was to be played at the San Paolo in Naples, with suggestions that many Napoli fans would be supporting their club hero instead of their country.
One banner in the stadium read, ‘Maradona, Naples loves you – but Italy is our country’ which summed up the potential divisions within the crowd that some of the fans wished to play down.
Italy’s team selection also drew great debate, as the experienced and tougher Gianluca Vialli was preferred to the talented but inexperienced Baggio. The decision appeared to be vindicated as Italy took a 1-0 lead, Vialli assisting Schillaci as the Juventus striker put Italy in front after only 17 minutes. But the team failed to capitalise on their good start and became complacent, perhaps safe in the knowledge that their previously un-breached backline would continue to hold firm and see the team safely through to the final.
With just over 20 minutes to go, the unthinkable happened as a lofted ball into the six yard box was flicked up and over a flapping Walter Zenga (possibly weighed down by his thick gold chain?) by the alice band wearing Claudio Caniggia.
The ball agonisingly dropped into the unguarded net and 67 million Italians had their dreams broken in an instant. Just as Samson lost all his strength from having his hair cut, the life seemed to drain from the Italian players’ legs as they struggled to react to the equaliser.
The game eventually went to extra time and penalties with Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena missing the crucial spot kicks, sending Azeglio Vicini’s men tumbling out.
For the record, Italy finished the finals in third place, beating England in the somewhat meaningless third place playoff with Baggio and Schillaci hitting the net in a 2-1 victory.
The author of this article will readily admit to shedding tears at the merest thought of Italia 90 and manner in which the fairytale ended. The team was composed of some of the greatest players in Azzurri world cup history.
They embodied the stereotypical ideal of the perfect Italian national team – an impermeable defensive block, a midfield blend of beauty and brutality and an intelligent attack that showed guile and cunning.
Many theories are debated whcih try and explain this calamity, this impossible failure. The aforementioned Zenga having some kind of ‘mental lapse’ as he inexplicably came off his line to challenge Caniggia, the game being played at El Pibe’s home ground which unsettled the players after having played every previous match at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome or leaving Robert Baggio on the bench for the less technical Gianluca Vialli are all often touted as reasons for the ultimate collapse.
But no ‘excuse’ can ever heal the pain that comes with reliving Italia 90 and the semi final encounter in Naples. A pain that meant players such as Walter Zenga, Franco Baresi (part of squad in 1982 but never played), Riccardo Ferri, Paolo Maldini, Carlo Ancelotti, Giuseppe Giannini, Roberto Donadoni, Salvatore Schillaci and Roberto Baggio would never be crowned as World Champions.
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