History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors. That may remain true to a point, but if Italy’s World Cup Quarter Final victory over Spain in 1994 proves anything, it demonstrates that the losers are able to have a big say as well.
For the Azzurri, the victory was another step on the way to achieving their destiny, a packed Foxboro containing a huge number of Italian-Americans to cheer them along.
For their vanquished opponents, an elbow from Mauro Tassotti to the face of Luis Enrique was the big moment in a match that was stolen from them at the death. That the Milan defender apologised after the game, admitting his actions were inexcusable, adds some weight to their claim, though it is as likely that his motive was attempting to ensure a more lenient punishment to be meted out.
If so, it did not work, as he was banned for eight games.
Before it even began, the quarter final was already courting controversy. As with so many of the games in the tournament, it was played in searing hot temperatures which meant the players fatigued easily. Spain went into the game with three days more rest than Arrigo Sacchi’s side, who had been using vitamins and salts to aid their recovery.
Star man Baggio had been particularly affected by cramps, and while his participation was never really in doubt, he was certainly not 100% by kick-off.
La Roja had started the competition slowly, with two Group C draws against South Korea and Germany meaning they needed to beat Bolivia to qualify. They did so, and eased past Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland in the second round.
Meanwhile, the Azzurri’s tournament had been tricky. A first match defeat to the Republic of Ireland was followed by a scraped win over Norway with Gianluca Pagliuca sent off. A draw against Mexico earned a tie with Nigeria, against whom Roberto Baggio dragged his team-mates into the quarter finals.
With that in mind, it might have been expected that Spain would start the stronger, but it was Sacchi’s charges who made the early running with Dino Baggio’s drilled opener their 25th minute reward.
Spain fought back, but created little against a well-drilled Azzurri backline. Antonio Benarrivo, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and captain Paolo Maldini pulled together to ensure that the returning Pagliuca did not have a lot to do.
His first important act, in fact, was picking the ball out of the back of his net after a flowing move of backheels and flat passes was ended by a strike from Jose Luis Caminero that flicked off the boot of Benarrivo beyond the Sampdoria goalkeeper. Spain were level, and with Javier Clemente immediately throwing Julio Salinas on, they were looking to win the tie.
When Salinas found himself in the clear with just minutes to go, it looked as though they might do exactly that. However, he found only Pagliuca and the game remained level and with both sides’ legs tiring, extra time beckoned with the Azzurri pushed further and further back to their goal.
It is not a typical Italian trait to counter-attack; for Sacchi particularly, control is key. Without the ball, and without control, Italy looked lost. That they turned to the counter-attack is perhaps a surprise, but that it was executed so clinically, perhaps less so.
Only two minutes remained when Benarrivo won the ball in his own penalty area, and played it forwards. In the blink of an eye, it had travelled practically the length of the field, an intelligent flick from substitute Giuseppe Signori played into the path of Baggio.
Some World Cup quarter final goals write a legend of their own. At a similar sort of time the following day, Yordan Letchkov was diving his way into Bulgarian folklore with a header that beat Germany.
Others are simply another canvas to hang in a gallery full of them. Urged on by a banner in the stands that read ‘Fly, Roby Baggio, Fly’, the Juventus forward did exactly that. He took the ball effortlessly under his control, jinked his way past Andoni Zubizaretta and, from a tight angle to the right of the goal, put the ball into the net in front of a despairing defender.
It was a sublime piece of skill, but entirely in-keeping with his previous work. Spain were broken, Italy were through, most of the Foxboro crowd were delirious and Baggio, and Italy, were airborne.
The rest of the story is well known; Italy went on to reach the final, inspired by Baggio, before falling to Brazil.
Some years later, the Spanish teenagers of the time, perhaps spurred on by that sense of injustice, went on to win a glut of international competitions over a five year period. Perhaps their finest moment came in a 4-0 destruction of the Azzurri in Kiev.
When they meet in World Cup qualifying on Saturday, it will be too soon for the Italian teenagers of 2012 to wreak revenge, but, as Luis Enrique found, the wounds of Italy and Spain meetings can run deep.