BY BIKASH MOHAPATRA
Itâ€™s a strange coincidence.
Maybe destiny played a major part.
No matter how one perceives or chooses to describe it there was a certain degree of familiarity to Italyâ€™s maiden triumph at both the gameâ€™s biggest tournaments â€“ the 1934 FIFA World Cup and the 1968 European Championships.
For starters, Italy won both the competitions on the first instance they hosted it.
Secondly, the first occasion they played hosts also happened to be their debut in the respective tournaments.
More importantly, despite being the hosts Italy had to qualify for both the tournaments â€“ in case of the World Cup it remains the first and only instance when the hosts needed to qualify.
Not to forget La Nazionale was 10 minutes away from defeat in either final.
Besides, Italyâ€™s maiden success in either had a fair share of controversy and negativity attached to it.
Politics, allegationsâ€¦and a triumph
When Italy hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1934 it was anything but an auspicious beginning.
It remains the only edition where the defending champions didnâ€™t participate; Uruguay declining the opportunity in retaliation to Italyâ€™s refusal to travel to Montevideo for the inaugural edition.
Italy had to get it past Greece at the San Siro to secure qualification.
The political angle has been well documented, and thereâ€™s little to add to it.
It is obvious that Benito Mussolini used the tournament as a propaganda tool for his fascist ideology. Not surprisingly many reports alleged that the matches featuring the host nation, if not the whole tournament, were fixed.
Having got past Spain (in a replay) in Florence, in a game characterised by rough play and multiple injuries, Italy were to face fellow tournament favourites Austria, and the Wunderteam, in the last four â€“ a team that had comprehensively beaten them on home soil a few months earlier.
Hugo Meislâ€™s side was reportedly warned that the referee for the game in Milan, Ivan Eklind, had dined with Mussolini. Not that they could do much about it.
Even as the hosts won by a solitary goal, legendary Austrian striker Josef Bican claimed the Swedish referee had headed one of his crosses to an Italian player. The controversy notwithstanding it was Eklind who took charge of the final.
Despite Czechoslovakia taking the lead in Rome, late in the second half through Antonin Puc, the hosts equalised through Raimundo Orsi before getting the winning goal from Angelo Schiavio. Another factor attributed to the Italian triumph were the oriundi â€“ players born in other countries who could claim some type of Italian ancestry, and thereby qualify to play for the Azzurri.
The hosts had quite a few of them: Orsi, Schiavio, Enrique Guaita â€“ who scored the winner in the semi-final â€“ and Luis Monti who had represented Argentina in the inaugural final.
And boy didnâ€™t the Argentine lineage play a crucial part?
Italyâ€™s astute albeit authoritarian coach, the legendary Vittorio Pozzo, didnâ€™t quite agree that his team had benefited immensely from the oriundi, and had a resounding response to all the criticism meted out:
â€œIf they can die for Italy, they can also play for Italyâ€, said Pozzo, in a palpable reference to the fact that the oriundi players had served in the army.
In fact Il Vecchio Maestro (The Old Master) would take none of the negativity surrounding the tournament and attributed Italyâ€™s maiden triumph to â€œhard work, moral steadfastness, a spirit of self-sacrifice and the unshakeable desire of a group of menâ€.
16 Years a Champion, 18 Years a Struggle
Any question marks pertaining to the quality of the Italian team that won in 1934 can be dissipated with the fact that they went onto retain the title four years later â€“ while also winning the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Pozzo was in charge throughout, while Giuseppe Meazza was a key figure in both the World Cup squads.
If the 1934 title was controversial, its defense was authoritative. Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola each scored a brace as Italy bested Hungary 4-2 in Paris.
The World Cup finals would not be held for another 12 years, until 1950, because of World War II. As a result, Italy remained champions for a record 16 years.
However, their stature as long-standing champions was to be followed by an equally long period of struggle.
The Superga air disaster of 1949, where most of their starting line-up lost their lives in the service of their club, Torino, severely weakened Italyâ€™s national team. There were doubts regarding their participation in 1950 but the Italians were eventually persuaded, preferring to undertake a long journey by boat rather than by plane.
However, defeat in their opening match to Sweden, followed by the Swedes drawing their second match (against Paraguay), meant Italy not only lost their unbeaten record but also got eliminated having played just one match.
The Azzurri did not advance past the group stage in 1954 and failed to qualify for the 1958 edition.
Defeat in the Battle of Santiago restricted Italy to the first phase in 1962, and a humiliating defeat at the hands of North Korea ensured another opening round exit four years later.
Host-ility, controversy and redemption
The aforementioned defeat in Middlesbrough was the nadir of Italian football.
The team was pelted with rotten tomatoes at the airport when they reached home. No way could the enraged fans be assuaged.
Four opening round exits in the World Cup and one non-qualification was the worst it could get.
This despite having the likes of Carlo Parola, Giampiero Boniperti, Cesare Maldini, Giovanni Trapattoni, Jose Altafini, Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola and Giacomo Bulgarelli in the team at some point during the period.
It had been a long time since the La Nazionale had managed to compete, let alone win. It had been a downward spiral in the 17 years since the Turin disaster and there were no signs of rebuilding. The national pride lay shattered.
Expectedly, manager Edmondo Fabbri got the boot. His assistant Ferruccio Valcareggi was handed the reins. Not that he was a popular figure. But during his apprenticeship he had mastered the art of ignoring the abuse and insults.
Valcareggiâ€™s first big challenge was the European Championships of 1968. The Azzurri had opted out of the inaugural edition in 1960 and had stumbled in the qualifying rounds of the 1964 tournament.
However, they dominated their group and beat Bulgaria 4-3 (on aggregate) in the play-offs â€“ despite losing the opening leg in Sofia â€“ to qualify for the tournament proper. After the qualifying round, the host country for the final tournament was announced.
It was Italy.
They faced the erstwhile Soviet Union in the last four. It was goalless after extra time and with no concept of penalty shoot-outs at the time, and no time for a replay, the match was decided in a rather bizarre manner â€“ a coin toss. It remains the only match to be decided thus.
Giacinto Facchetti, the Italian captain, called it correctly. Albert Shesternyov, his opposite number, and the entire Soviet team was left palpably disappointed. The champions of the inaugural edition definitely deserved something better, as much for being unperturbed by the hostile Naples crowd as for their resolute display.
In the final against Yugoslavia, the Italians came within minutes of defeat. However, an Angelo Domenghini equaliser, and a goalless extra-time, meant a replay had to be used to determine the winner.
It is imperative here to mention that this match wasnâ€™t devoid of controversies either.
When the ever-aggressive Giorgio Ferrini charged at the Yugoslav forward Vahidin Musemic in the box, Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst â€“ the same gentleman who had awarded England that â€˜disputedâ€™ third goal in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany â€“ didnâ€™t react. The same player also pushed midfielder Miroslav Pavlovic. Still no reaction.
Likewise, Domenghiniâ€™s goal was courtesy of a controversial free-kick, taken before the whistle even as the Yugoslavs were busy adjusting their wall. It stood.
The Azzurri albeit returned to Romeâ€™s Stadio Olimpico 48 hours later a completely different proposition. Valcareggi made as many as five changes to his side, and that included Luigi Riva â€“ returning from a broken leg â€“ and Sandro Mazzola. The former scored the opener.
Pietro Anastasi added a second. Italy had won the final at the second time of asking.
The host factor had once again ensured good fortune.
It had helped end 30 years of disappointment. It had helped the country win its maiden, and to date only Euopeanl title.
Most importantly, it had helped the Azzurri salvage lost pride.
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