By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (July 6, 2006) — Time will have to tell whether Italy’s virtuoso performance against Germany, coming as it has during the worst scandal in the history of Italian soccer (if not the entire history of the sport), will prove to be an ironic aberration or a harbinger of meaningful change. What we do know is that their style of play — the way they attacked the hosts from the off and the extent to which they resisted resorting to cynical gamesmanship — was sharply at odds with the better part of their history.
In 1934, Italy hosted and won the World Cup, but its triumph was marred by accusations that fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini handpicked the match officials. Members of the Austrian team, such as Josef Bican, that lost to Italy in the semifinal were convinced that the match was fixed. “They were little crooks,” he said. “They used to cheat a little; No, they used to cheat a lot. The referee even played for them. When I passed the ball out to the right wing, one of our players, Zischek, ran for it and the referee headed it back to the Italians. It was terrific, unbelievable.”
The manner in which Italy won its second World Cup, in France in 1938, was a good deal more convincing, but there were still overtones of fascism, especially in the quarterfinal against France. Normally the Azzuri would dress in white if they could not wear their customary blue shirts and white shorts, but Mussolini ordered them to use all black jerseys, which were the very symbol of Italian fascism, for the only time in their history.
Mussolini was all too happy to associate himself with their 3-1 victory over Hungary in the final, but World War II brought down his so-called Black Shirts and helped propel Italy into its darkest footballing period. The self-belief that had characterized their play by the end of the ’30s was replaced by a more cynical attitude. Italy was devastated and bitterly divided after the war, and what confidence remained was shattered by a plane crash, known as La Tragedia di Superga, that killed 18 members of Torino’s championship team.
Since the Torino players formed the heart of the national team (10 of them had earned caps, which was almost unprecedented figure at the time), the Italians had to rethink their approach. As historian Simon Martin explains, “Not only did this destroy any chance Italy had of winning a third consecutive World Cup in 1950, I think we can also say that it also contributed to the need for a more defensive system of play because of the dearth of players Italy had at the time. There was a need to make the best of the resources that were available.”
In a similar vain, soccer journalist Giancarlo Gavalotti added, “A nation which was not yet sure of their own potential, a nation which felt they had not recovered completely from the devastating effect of the Second World War, had to devise ways of going through short cuts and play at the same level as the established super powers.”
At about the same time, a tiny club called Triestina, which normally would have little or no hope, managed to finish second in Serie A by introducing the reviled catenaccio system, which, as Paul Gardner explained, “was not designed to win games, but rather to avoid losing them, or to avoid losing by heavy scores.” The system was conservative, as there was always a sweeper, a kind of free safety, waiting to cover for any mistakes made by the man-marking defenders. The other defenders often tried to prevent opposing attackers from even receiving the ball and it was not uncommon for as many as nine outfield players to provide defensive cover. Not surprisingly, there was also a marked increase in unsavory play: deliberate fouls, attempts to deceive referees, and even treachery.
This attitude became so entrenched that the Italians tended to employ it even when it was counter-productive. Perhaps the best case & point was their shock 1-0 elimination at the hands of the good-natured and speedy, but relatively unskilled, North Korea in the ’66 World Cup. The manner in which the Italian public reacted, by hurling rotten fruit and eggs at the players and chanting “Korea!” at them in stadiums around the country, only served to place more of an emphasis on getting results at all costs. According to captain Giacinto Facchetti, it was this fear of disgrace that came to motivate the Azzuri during the subsequent World Cup in Mexico: “After we lost to North Korea in 1966, we were pelted with eggs at the Genoa Airport. Rather than go through that again, I’d have dropped dead through exhaustion at the Aztec Stadium.”
And he very nearly did, during the ’70 the semifinal against West Germany. The Italians won what might have been the most dramatic encounter in the history of soccer 4-3, but the number of goals scored had very little to with how the Italians played. They grabbed a lead after eight minutes, through a well-taken goal by Roberto Boninsegna, but gradually began to circle the wagons, in the hope of holding what they had. This should have proven to be suicidal, as the Germans created no fewer than 14 clear chances in the second half, as well as another dozen half chances, potentially dangerous free kicks, and corners. Somehow the Italians held out, albeit by using every trick alive, dead, or yet conceived, until the Germans, who really do never give up, scored the equalizer well into injury time.
The Italians recovered and won the match by scoring three goals in extra time, but that was not because there was a collective realization that they were playing too deeply. Rather, after they fell behind, their most creative player, Gianni Rivera, the reigning European Footballer of the Year, ignored manager Ferruccio Valcareggi’s instructions and took the match to the exhausted Germans. He set up the goal that restored their lead at 3-2 and then scored the decider after the Germans deadlocked matters at three.
Rivera did not start in the final against Brazil because, as Valcargegi explained before the tournament, “Rivera is only at his best going forward and thinking forward.” Italy went on to lose 4-1 — in large part because they ceded the initiative to the Brazilians just like they had to the Germans — but after the match Valcareggi made it quite clear that he had no regrets about the approach he had adopted, and that Italian soccer would not be changing anytime soon. “I cannot pretend that Italian football will have any change of heart about their style of play. Just as Brazil and Peru (who progressed to the quarterfinals) find their natural game is to be fully committed to attack, we use the same range of skills to keep the goals scored against us to a minimum.”
Valcareggi’s remarks, by and large, have proven to be prophetic. Ask Roberto Baggio, whose place was in jeopardy in all three World Cups he took part in. Or consider the match against Sweden in EURO 2004. Italy played brilliantly for 60 minutes, even without have-saliva-will-spit Francesco Totti, before closing up shop and conceding the equalizer to Zlatan Imbrahimovic. Italian soccer was still like the proverbial scorpion stabbing the turtle even though it is ferrying him across troubled waters. They understand that continuing to attack would be in their best interest, but it is defending, however suicidal, that is in their nature.
Marcello Lippi abandoned that approach on Tuesday and got his just rewards. Only time will tell if the lesson finally takes hold.