The World Cup Alphabet – A is for…. Part 3



While the Argentines have been a mainstay in World Cup history so have the team whose emigrants helped teach them game.


Much like the Argies, Gli Azzurri (The Blues) have also had times of loose morals and bad sportsmanship that has left a sour taste. Need we mention Kaiserslautern in 2006? From their first appearance in 1934 there’s always been an air of confidence about them, of swarthy glamour to hide the undercurrent of skulduggery. They always personified confidence in their own abilities yet they’ve always seemed to be at their best in the World Cup when mired in controversy, when unfancied, when being chased with pitchforks and torches like a hunchback through a village.


In 1934 for their first tournament they would host. It was a chance for Benito Mussolini to show off his regime and even tried to make his own cup for the tournament. Italy, of course, won. They backed it up in France in 1938 even with Spain in the grips  of civil war south of the border and the rest of the country and world about to kick off in to a decimating war.


Due to the Torino Air Disaster and the fact that Il Duce’s links to the national side were strong many abandoned the team and the Azzurri disappeared out of contention post World War II. 10 of the 11 starting players in the Italian national side were killed in the disaster. In 1950 they went to the World Cup in Brazil to defend their title but travelled by boat as they were so spooked by the Torino tragedy. After being eliminated early though they thought f*** it and flew home in a huff rather than sit on a boat again.

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Italy in 1966 pre-humiliation.


By the early 60s they were back as a force again at club level and that was thanks to the defensive system ‘catenaccio’ or ‘door bolt’. The carefully planned defensive tactic was developed by Nereo Rocco and then implemented by Inter Milan. When applied to the national side and with a host of those Inter stars in the squad they clawed there way back in to contention.


The swagger was back in a royal blue shirt.


Seen as a favourite at World Cup ’66, the Italians would face North Korea in a final group game in Middlesbrough. The Communists were expected to flop but backed by a fierce local crowd who had taken to the Koreans who were staying in the city they defeated Italy in one of the great upsets. Thousands were there at the airport when Italy arrived home. The ‘welcoming committee’ pelted the players with fruit and other objects.


The offers of support through missile projection seemed to inspire the side somewhat being a side that always fed off controversy and loathing. Winning the European title in 1968 they went to the World Cup in Mexico as a top team. In the semi finals they faced West Germany and in one of the great World Cup games outlasted their opponents 4-3. The trouble was with all games played in the blazing afternoon heat of Mexico they were knackered by the time the final rolled around and were decimated by that iconic Brazil team 4-1.


1974 and 1978 came and went, a side never really in it but always feared as other new systems in Holland and Germany unlocked catenaccio. What the Italians needed was scandal and controversy before a tournament to succeed and they had it in spades before Mexico ’82. A probe in to bribery in Serie A (the Totonero Scandal) had seen many star players suspended including star striker Paolo Rossi.


Rossi’s ban was reduced to two years so was allowed back to play at in the tournament the last minute. The side was a busted flush in the first round drawing three times but sneaking in to the second round. Rossi contributed little being of out shape and form being referred as a ghost who wandered the field. With a press black out due to the vitriol aimed at the side and seemingly no hope they hit a level they never knew they had in the second round defeating the champs Argentina and beating one of the great Brazil sides with an amazing Rossi hattrick to get in to the semis.


After Rossi scored again against Poland in the semis Italy took out the derided West German side in the final. Rossi completed his lazarus like comeback scoring again and Mario Tardelli scored a cracker with a celebration to match it. With everything okay in the world of Italian football they again failed to add to the legend in Mexico in 86 hardly being a threat.


Hosting the tournament in 1990 would surely throw up some kind of scandal to get them over the line but Maradona beat them to it and they fell to Argentina in the semi finals in Naples. The Argentine superstar getting the locals in Naples onside by claiming the national side only represents the rich industrial north and didn’t care for Naples and other places in the south.


With a mental coach who was stable as nitro glycerine in Arrigo Sacchi at the helm an un-fancied Italian team got to the final 1994 but went out in the first ever penalty shoot out in a final. 1998 was a loss in the quarters, 2002 a controversial elimination by hosts South Korea. Then in 2006 there was another bribery scandal, this time involving referees. Juventus and AC Milan were caught up in the investigation with the former booted down to the second division and stripped of two titles.


While the national team had stars they had no cohesion and next to some powerful countries like champions Brazil, star studded Argentina and the hosts Italy weren’t fancied for Germany ’06. They, of course, won the lot with players caught up in the scandal and claiming scalps like us plucky Aussies  in the second round that incensed even the most passive of sporting fans in Australia.


Since then Italian football as struggled at league and international level with the exception of making the final of Euro 2012. The decline all came to a zenith when they failed to somehow qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the first time they would miss in 60 years. For many it’s a big heaving bowl of Schadenfreude for 2006 and other times they’ve gilded the lilly.


Yet will something be missing at the World Cup without the Azzuri? Their place as the supposed holder of the all cards of everything that is cynical and evil about the games laws adds to the narrative of every tournament. We shall see. Another controversy in Italy and another dip at the title won’t be too far away.


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