Corvallis, OR (August 3, 2005) USSoccerplayers – In the end, the 1970 World Cup semifinal between Italy and West Germany was a contest of wills: the German’s indefatigable, resourceful commitment to winning versus the Italian’s pathological fear of failure. It was far from aesthetic, but it dripped with tension, and two soccer cultures were laid bare.
Since at least the late 1940s, Italian soccer has been trapped in a paradox. They have produced generations of creative, technically gifted ballplayers, but they have rarely been allowed to fully express themselves because of an all-consuming fear of losing.
This kind of pressure reached its zenith during the 1970 World Cup, largely because Italy had been shockingly eliminated by North Korea in the first round of the 1966 World Cup. The players were pelted with “unwashed” fruit and eggs when they returned home and Italian fans frequently serenaded them with chants of “Korea, Korea” whenever they stepped on a field.
According to captain Giacinto Facchetti, it was this fear of disgrace that motivated them in 1970. “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.”
Such fear proved quite motivational. Italy had lost just once in the four years between the two World Cups and secured the European Nations Cup, on home soil, in 1968.
Although Italy could play with breathtaking style – for example, the first half against Yugoslavia in the Nations Cup final replay in ’68 – they tended to close up shop once they felt they had secured the match or their opponent began to mount serious attacks. They had a goal-scorer supreme in Luigi Riva. A brave, powerful figure with a fearsome left foot, Riva had the support of plenty of other attack-minded players who could move into the attack, were they given license.
The most gifted of these was Gianni Rivera, the reigning European Footballer of the Year, star of AC Milan, and the rare player who, in Italian parlance, could invent the game. Unfortunately, he was considered a lackadaisical marker, which was at odds with extraordinary demands that the Italian system, catenaccio (literally meaning the padlock), places on midfielders. What’s more, Rivera complained about the rigidity of the system and about how much work was required. “I have been asked to become a robot, not a footballer.”
Given these sentiments, it is probably not surprising that the manager, Ferruccio Valcareggi, preferred Sandro Mazzola, Rivera’s rival at Inter. Mazzola could not create something out of nothing, but he was an accurate if prosaic passer and, more to the point, he never shirked a defensive duty. Valcareggi summed up his philosophy, and the Italian mindset perfectly, by way of justifying why he had relegated Rivera to the role of situational substitute: “Rivera is only at his best going forward and thinking forward.”
This approach propelled Italy to the semifinal. They scored early on in their first match against Sweden, somewhat luckily, it might be added, and did not score, or allow, another goal for the rest of the first round. Their second match, a goalless draw against Uruguay, may have been the worst in the history of the World Cup. Both teams felt a draw would suffice, so why should either mount an attack. God forbid either side accidentally scored and forced open the match.
In the quarterfinal, Italy fell behind Mexico and replaced Mazzola with Rivera for the second half. Valcareggi’s explanation, that “Mexico had shown themselves to have little grasp for the basic requirements of defensive play” and that they thus could not withstand the additional pressure Rivera would bring, was more than justified by the four goals that Italy scored. Valcareggi would make the same move, using similar logic, in the semifinal, but with mixed results.
Unlike Italy, the resilience that characterized German soccer was relatively straightforward. They never, ever gave up and continually readapted to ever changing circumstances, especially those posed by the oppressive heat and altitude in Mexico.
On their way to the semifinal, West Germany fell behind three of their four opponents but beat them all with second half goals. The key was introducing fresh wingers, most notably Juergen Grabowski, who, adroit with either foot, would continually run at tired fullbacks and put in crosses for the opportunistic Gerd Mueller and Uwe Seeler. Seeler was playing in his fourth World Cup, but somehow he still found the energy to link the midfield with the attack and had the timing, though he was only five-foot-seven, to win most aerial battles.
Their character was never more apparent than in the quarterfinal, when they overcame a 2-0 second half deficit against England. Their wingers ran England’s exhausted fullbacks, Terry Cooper and Keith Newton, into the ground, Seeler equalized with the most improbable of headers, and another cross, from Johannes Loehr, picked out Mueller for the winner in extra time. No doubt Germany had been lucky, but they deserved full credit for making their luck.
Surprisingly, the German manager, Helmut Schoen, varied this logic for the semifinal. He chose to start Grabowski for the first time, though he still had two wingers, Stan Libuda (nicknamed after Stanley Matthews) and Siggy Held, at his disposal. Valcareggi was more predictable. Rivera may have awoken the dormant Italian attack, but that wasn’t sufficient cause to replace Mazzola.
The first half proved Valcareggi correct. The Italians actually attacked and scored after eight minutes. Roberto Boninsegna, who generally supported Riva up front, played a quick one-two with him, and shot past Sepp Maier from 20 yards. Perhaps Maier could have dove to his right quicker, but the shot was struck pretty hard and it did hit the side netting.
Germany certainly had a few chances. Mueller turned and shot just wide from inside the box. Beckenbauer was bundled down in the area after a run from a deep position, but no penalty was awarded. And the Italian keeper, Enrico Albertosi, did well to tip a deflected bomb from Grabowksi over the bar. But, on the whole, the Italians gave as well as they got. Mazzola played the all around role Valcareggi envisioned and he and his teammates found Riva time and again, though his marker, Berti Vogts, gamely and successfully stuck to the task. The match seemed far from decided, but Italy certainly had executed their plan.
At the half, Valcareggi still substituted Rivera for Mazzola. He felt that “Germany ought to tire rapidly in the second half, after their arduous match against England.” The problem was that the Germans did not tire. “I was mistaken; in fact I was amazed by their stamina,” said Valcareggi. This meant that Rivera had to retreat and assume the kind of defensive responsibilities better suited to Mazzola.
By contrast, the Germans started to attack with ever increasing abandon. If the Italians were not going to push more than two players forward, why should they keep more than two players back? Only Vogts and Willy Schults stayed behind. The sweeper, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, joined Beckenbauer and Wolfgang Overath in midfield. Soon, two more attackers were brought on and the Germans were in the old WM formation: two fullback, three halfbacks, and five forwards: from right to left, Libuda, Seeler, Mueller, Held, and Grabowski.
Statistics are not normally a good way to measure a soccer match, but, in this instance, they go some way towards capturing the onslaught that ensued. The Germans had no fewer than 14 clear chances on goal and another dozen half-chances, potentially dangerous free kicks and corners.
Within five minutes, Seeler had two shots in the area. The first, perfectly set up by Beckenbauer, went straight at Albertosi, and the second, an acrobatic effort, went just wide. Next, Beckenbauer opportunistically found Mueller with a free kick. He quickly laid it off to a completely unmarked Grabowski, only to see him shoot wide. Grabowski soon made amends by beating Albertosi to a ball in the left side of the box and eventually crossed to an unmarked Overath, who rocketed the ball off the crossbar.
Beckenbauer then set off on another one of his deep runs and was flying into the box only to have the sweeper, Pierluigi Cera, chop him down.
This was probably the turning point. Germany won a free kick, but effectively lost Beckenbauer, who played the rest of the match with a separated shoulder. He was always more inclined to link the midfield with the defense than attack, but his graceful runs-he seemed to blow by defenders as easily as a cool summer breeze-were vital. What’s more, Germany could not replace him because they carelessly made their second substitution while he was being attended to.
Still, they kept coming. Seeler shot right at Albertosi from 12 yards. Overath put Held clean through and he beat Albertosi, only to have Roberto Rosato miraculously scissor kick the ball off the line. He barely cleared the ball and Seeler was just about to pounce, when Mario Bertini halled him to the ground.
It was a blatant penalty, but the Mexican referee, Signor Yamasaki, had, to put matters mildly, lost control. The Germans quite rightly felt they had been denied two or possibly three clear penalties. They protested virtually every call and Mueller once literally manhandled Yamasaki, but their anger did not compare to the machinations the Italians subjected him to: they wasted time, kicked the ball after every foul, flat out refused to move back ten yards, faked injuries, made rugby tackles, caught balls with their hands, and even falsely alleged that the Germans attacked them when his back was turned. Yamasaki brandished a succession of yellow cards, but since he would not give a penalty or a red card, that was of no consequence to the Italians.
None of this is deterred the Germans. Held put Mueller through, but he shot right at Albertosi. Although Albertosi handled the shot, he soon kicked a clearance right into Grabowski’s back . The ball appeared to be rolling into the net, but it inexplicably stopped right on the goal line and Albertosi bundled it and Mueller away.
There was still some injury time, though no one knew how much. Seeler launched himself at a cross off a short corner and headed the ball towards the upper right hand corner, only for Albertosi to foil him again. Finally, in the third extra minute, Grabowski collected a throw in, fought his way down the left flank, and crossed to an unmarked Schnellinger-who scored!
There was not a choreographed celebration. Most of the Germans simply piled on top of each other while Grabowski sprinted around. The Italians silently extended their arms out, palms up, as if to exclaim “How” and Boninsegna tearfully collapsed into a fetal position.
Before the start of extra time, Valcareggi replaced the presumably exhausted Rosato with another defender, Poletti, but still saw no need to alter their basic tactics. In a similar vain, the Germans continued to attack, though not quite so desperately.
Straight away, Libuda, who had been fairly subdued, ran at Fachetti down the right flank before crossing to Mueller, who headed just wide. Four minutes later Mueller finally scored, using his stealth to latch on to a casual backpass from Poletti and prod it over the line.
Although the Italians finally adopted a more attacking posture, they looked tired and resigned, except for Rivera who finally had the freedom to prompt the attack. Sure enough, four minutes later, he launched a seemingly harmless free kick into the area. For some reason, Held, an attacker now forced to play defensively, tried to chest the ball down rather than clear it. It fell to Tarcisio Burgnich, a defender forced into attack, and he promptly dispatched it into the net.
Even though the match was again level, the Italians, for once, did not retreat – mainly because Rivera would not hear of it – and they soon regained the lead. The move began after Yamasaki failed to penalize Riva for hacking down Libuda. The ball came to Rivera, who quickly played Angelo Domenghini forward down the left sideline. He squared to Riva who completely eluded Vogts and fired into the right corner with his left foot.
The match was in the second period of extra time, but the Germans were not done yet. Once again they poured everyone forward and once again Albertosi panicked. He attempted to clear the ball but instead rolled it off a teammate’s back and had to rugby tackle Mueller outside the area. Overath’s free quick found Seeler, but once again Albertosi redeemed himself by tipping the ball over the bar.
Or at least he thought he had. Libuda lofted the ensuing short corner to the back post and found Seeler, who headed the ball back across the goal. Mueller flung himself at the ball like a missile and headed it into the lower right hand corner.
Italy scored straight from the restart. Boninsegna collected a pass from Facchetti on the left flank, outdueled Schults, the weak link in the German defense, and crossed to an unmarked Rivera in the middle of the box. Maier was at his mercy and Rivera simply picked the spot he vacated.
There were still nine minutes left, but this time the match really was over. The Germans continued to attack of course, but they did not create any serious chances. The Italians, for their part, were cautious, even cynical at times, but they did not retreat back into the bunker.
Even though Valcareggi admitted that he should not have brought Rivera on so early, he also took credit for his constructive role. “We were perhaps fortunate to hold out until extra time, but once it came, Rivera was ideally suited to lead our recovery from 2-1 down.”
In other words, he was willing to give Rivera a free hand when necessity dictated, but he quickly added that the philosophy that underlies Italian soccer was not about to change.
“I cannot pretend that Italian football will have any change of heart about their style of play. Just as Brazil and Peru 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.”
Indeed, Brazil and Peru have modified their approach but not Italy. 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 Francesco Totti, before circling the wagons and conceding the equalizer to Zlatan Imbrahimovic. Italian soccer is 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.