Let me ask you a question. Which is your all-time favourite World Cup Finals tournament?

Without any hesitation, my favourite World Cup of all time is Espana 1982. As an 11-year-old boy, it was the first Finals tournament that I was old enough to watch. More importantly, my own wee country, Northern Ireland, had qualified to be part of it all, under the astute guidance of the great Billy Bingham. It was a simply magical tournament, at a time when the world badly needed it to be so, even if only as a temporary “feel good” distraction from terrible news events elsewhere.

 

Please Be Good…

 

The early 1980s saw a planet with trouble and bad news everywhere (c’est la vie, eh?). There was widespread and persistent fighting and murderous terrorism in the Middle East, in northern Spain, in Northern Ireland, in Afghanistan…. Some things, unfortunately, never change. The Cold War was still a huge problem. Soviet communism had forcibly extended its icy grip across much of Eastern Europe, keeping millions of people enslaved to a system they neither wanted nor believed in.

In the U.K., we had had the worrying Iranian Embassy siege in London, when the security forces eventually freed hostages held at gunpoint for six days. Corporate privatisation under Margaret Thatcher had replaced a failed socialist Labour administration’s infamous “winter of discontent”. Yet only the ‘fat cats’ at the top of the ladder were likely to benefit from Thatcher’s measures. Living conditions for working-class people had shown little improvement from the impoverished days of the early 1970s. The coal miners’ strikes were just around the corner…

By early 1982, the British inhabitants of a hitherto largely inconspicuous group of small desolate islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, the Falkland Islands, awoke to find their Argentinean neighbours encamped, uninvited, on their streets with tanks and guns… A war was about to begin.

Into all this turbulence, FIFA brought us “Espana ‘82”. After the somewhat dubious nature of Argentina’s much-heralded home victory in the Finals’ previous 1978 incarnation (rumours persisted about nefarious means used by the military junta government to ensure the hosts were triumphant on their own soil), the organisers wanted to stage a flawless, transparent tournament on the Iberian Peninsula.

 

Yes, another FIFA farce…

 

To that end, their staging of the ‘live’ draw to decide the groups for the opening phase of the Finals on 16 January 1982 was nothing less than a disastrous farce. Some of the miniature footballs containing team names refused to open for their embarrassed dignitaries. Another broke in half, exposing the team name within it to a watching worldwide audience. The balls representing Peru and Chile were left out of the draw entirely. Then, when Scotland emerged into Argentina’s group, FIFA’s Sepp Blatter ordered a re-draw, claiming it had been a ‘mistake’…!?

By the end of the proceedings, no-one was quite sure how the draw had ever been envisaged to run smoothly. Nonetheless, we had our groups.

Having been, unsurprisingly, declared a top seed (as one of the six leading competing nations), two-time World Champions ITALY were assured of playing all three of their opening phase games at a single venue. They were placed into Group One, along with the dangerous POLAND, little-known PERU and completely unknown CAMEROON. They were to be based in the city of Vigo, on the north-west corner of Spain.

Italy, of course, had a proud history at the top level of the game. They had claimed the ultimate prize in 1934 and again in 1938, as well as becoming European Champions in 1968. The Azzurri had secured a very respectable fourth-place finish at Argentina ’78. They were the only side to have beaten eventual winners Argentina during the tournament.

 

The Manager

 

Enzo Bearzot had remained in charge of the team in the four years since the narrow 2-1 semi-final defeat in Buenos Aires that had seen Holland progress to contest the 1978 World Cup Final at Italy’s expense. Bearzot, despite having had a reasonably uneventful 18-year career in Serie A as a defensive midfielder with Inter Milan and Torino, had been appointed boss of the national side in 1975.

He had achieved this position via ‘internal’ Italian Federation promotion, having been assistant manager to his predecessor Feruccio Valcareggi. Bearzot, who somehow managed to resemble both a kindly grandfatherly figure and a mafia “don” at the same time, had not managed at club level beyond a single season at Serie C side Prato. In that regard, Bearzot was fortunate to have lived in the era he did. Nowadays it is highly unlikely that any man not in possession of a decent club managerial record would even be considered for such a prestigious job.

Of the relatively youthful squad that represented the nation in Argentina, quite a few players had survived the interim period, during which Italy had hosted the 1980 European Championship. However, another fourth-placed finish on home soil was not viewed in the same favourable light as the one achieved in South America. There was, therefore, some pressure on the pipe-smoking Bearzot to do much better in Spain with a squad which was highly regarded back home.

That pressure had not lessened in the aftermath of the March 1980 match-fixing scandal (coined the “Totonero” in the Italian media) which had rocked domestic Italian football. As many as seven clubs were found guilty of arranging results. Both A.C. Milan and Lazio suffered demotion to Serie B as a punishment. Several players were individually prosecuted for ‘selling’ matches for money, the highest-profile of whom was leading striker Paolo Rossi. Rossi was subsequently suspended from football for two years, meaning he had played no part in that summer’s European Championship tournament.

 

Qualification

 

Italy’s qualification for Espana ’82 had been made to look easier than it might have proved, especially in light of the 1980 betting scandal which robbed them of several squad members. The Italians had been drawn in a testing five-team Group with Yugoslavia, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg. Bearzot had overseen four consecutive 2-0 victories over the other Group nations to assume an early pole position in the Group table. Despite a 3-1 defeat in Copenhagen, the Azzurri were never less than comfortable as regards qualification. However, some strong results by the crack Yugoslavs had seen them grab top spot in the Group.

An equaliser from veteran Juventus kingpin Roberto Bettega had gained Italy a creditable 1-1 draw in Belgrade in October 1981. That left them with two very winnable games against Greece and Luxembourg in order to finish top of the Group. However, it wasn’t to be. A late, late Greek equaliser in Turin allowed Yugoslavia to remain in top spot (they’d beaten the other three nations in the Group, both home and away). Italy had to settle for runners-up position, though this was enough to ensure qualification to the Finals in any case.

 

The Squad

 

The 22-man squad Bearzot named to represent the country in Spain was as follows (with squad numbers and players’ clubs):

 

Goalkeepers:

1. (captain) Dino Zoff (Juventus), 12. Ivano Bordon (Inter Milan), 22. Giovanni Galli (Fiorentina);

 

Defenders:

2. Franco Baresi (A.C. Milan), 3. Giuseppe Bergomi (Inter Milan), 4. Antonio Cabrini (Juventus), 5. Fulvio Collovati (Inter Milan), 6. Claudio Gentile (Juventus), 7. Gaetano Scirea (Juventus), 8. Pietro Vierchowod (Roma);

 

Midfielders:

9. Giancarlo Antognoni (Fiorentina), 10. Giuseppe Dossena (Torino), 11. Gianpiero Marini (Inter Milan), 13. Gabriele Oriali (Inter Milan), 14. Marco Tardelli (Juventus), 15. Franco Causio (Udinese), 16. Bruno Conti (Roma);

 

Forwards:

17. Daniele Massaro (Fiorentina), 18. Alessandro Altobelli (Inter Milan), 19. Francesco Graziani (Fiorentina), 20. Paolo Rossi (Juventus), 21. Franco Selvaggi (Cagliari).

 

Veteran team captain Dino Zoff was a superb keeper, even now at 40 years of age. In front of him, Claudio Gentile was the ultimate man-marker, capable of sticking to an opposing forward and mercilessly suffocating him of service for 90+ minutes.

Gaetano Scirea played much like Franz Beckenbauer had done for West Germany; when Italy took possession, he quickly became another midfielder, anchored in front of the back three. When they were out of possession, he dropped back to become another centre-back, or even a sweeper. His influence on the team was immense.

For creativity, huge expectations were laid on the shoulders of Fiorentina’s Giancarlo Antognoni; he played as a trequartista, drifting in between the midfield and striker positions, always available, always searching for the killer pass.

Upfront, Bearzot reluctantly called up Paolo Rossi. He was ‘rusty’ after his ban for involvement in the betting scandal, but Roberto Bettega had retired so Bearzot felt he had little option but to bring the disgraced Juventus striker with him to Spain.

 

Phase I

 

Game 1: Vigo, 14 June: Italy 0-0 Poland

 

Italy opened their World Cup campaign against fellow European adversaries Poland on 14 June in front of a sell-out crowd of 33,000 in Vigo. The starting team Bearzot named for Italy was as follows: (ostensibly 1-3-4-1-1, with Scirea operating as a sweeper behind the three-man defence of Gentile, Collovati and Cabrini)

 

Zoff (c);

Scirea;

Gentile, Collovati, Cabrini;

Marini, Conti, Tardelli, Graziani;

Antognoni;

Rossi.

 

Gianpiero Marini showed the intent of the Azzurri from the opening whistle as he became one of the fastest bookings in the history of World Cup football. He was cautioned by French official Michel Vautrot after less than 60 seconds had elapsed! However, the game never really got going, with both sides cancelling each other out. It was a huge disappointment, given some of the attacking talent on both sides. The Poles were more than dangerous, with iconic players such as Wladyslaw Zmuda, Grzegorz Lato and the wonderfully talented Zbigniew Boniek in their line-up. Boniek would move to Juventus after the tournament, enjoying continued success in Serie A for years afterwards.

However, in Vigo, neither side threatened to make the scoreboard operator get off his seat, and so a point apiece was their reward. It was a frustrating opening for Bearzot, but whenever Peru and Cameroon likewise fought out a dull 0-0 draw the following evening in La Coruna, it meant everyone had shared a point after one game. Given that Poland were certainly the strongest of the other three nations in their Group, the Italians were content enough with their start.

 

 

Game 2: Vigo, 18 June: Italy 1-1 Peru

 

Whilst claiming a creditable point in a testing opening game against the wily Poles was deemed just about ‘acceptable’ by the Italian paparazzi, nothing less than a win over Peru would be good enough in the second game. Bearzot fully expected his men to put the South Americans to the sword too. His line-up remained unchanged from the opening game:

 

Zoff (c);

Scirea;

Gentile, Collovati, Cabrini;

Marini, Conti, Tardelli, Graziani;

Antognoni;

Rossi.

 

Things started very well. Having made a bright start in the blazing sunshine in Vigo, Italy deservedly took the lead on 18 minutes- and what a goal it was too! The livewire Antognoni, causing the Peruvian defence all sorts of trouble with his intelligent movement, laid off a nice ball for Bruno Conti to run onto at the edge of the area. Roma’s legendary midfield man met it as sweetly as he could have hoped for, sending the ball arrowing, unstoppable, into the top corner of the Peruvian net.

Buoyed by their confident start, Bearzot’s men continued to keep the Peruvians under the cosh. Antognoni, by now effectively running the game, skimmed the base of a goalpost from the edge of the box after having a free-kick laid off to him. Minutes later, the unlikely Scirea, on a rare foray forward, blazed a great chance over the crossbar when a deflected shot squirmed into his run. He really should have doubled the Azzurri’s advantage.

However, the scoreline stubbornly remained at only 1-0, so the men in the white shirts with the dashing red sash were still very much in the game.

One Italian who wasn’t having a good game was the rusty Paolo Rossi; the Peruvian defenders had obviously been well briefed about Rossi’s ability to destroy their World Cup dreams if given any room- so they gave him nothing. Rossi was also unwell from the energy he had had to expend in training to try to ‘catch up’ on the fitness levels of the other squad members. He was replaced at the interval by Franco Causio, to no-one’s great surprise.

Unfortunately for Bearzot, the second half was very different from the first. Peru, encouraged to only be a single goal behind despite having been under almost constant pressure, started to venture forward much more readily, and suddenly Dino Zoff was given employment. Ruben Diaz startled the Azzurri captain with a dipping, swerving free-kick that Zoff did well to beat out. Soon afterwards Zoff came out well to smother another good chance for Jaime Duarte, the follow-up fortunately sliced wide of the empty goal, with Zoff stranded.

However, the “writing was on the wall”- the Italians didn’t heed their warning. Seven minutes from time Conti conceded a needless free-kick on the edge of his own area. As they lined up to defend an expected ball to the back post, the Italian defence unforgivably left Diaz unmarked at the edge of their area. When the ball was laid off to him instead of getting floated to the six-yard line, Diaz had time to rifle it past Zoff, with the aid of a slight deflection off Collovati.

In truth a point was no less than Peru deserved, but for Bearzot it was a bitter pill to swallow. His men had been expected to win with some comfort, and had looked good for that anticipated victory for more than 45 minutes. However, an inability to both create and clinically convert some good chances against stubborn opposition had been exposed for a second time in four days.

Predictably, this time the reporters back home were much less forgiving. The players were savaged in all the Italian sports newspapers, with the President of the Football Federation, Antonio Matarese, declaring: “This team is a disgrace. I wanted to go down to the dressing room and kick them in the backside.”

Worse, some gutter press ran a story insinuating that Paolo Rossi and Antonio Cabrini were having a homosexual affair.

The team retreated back to their high-security hotel base simply hoping that Poland and Cameroon would cancel each other out in the other Group game. Luck smiled on Bearzot when that is exactly what happened, yet another dreary 0-0 Group One stalemate ironically giving Italy pole position despite the Azzurri having produced two fairly lacklustre performances to date.

 

Game 3: Vigo, 23 June: Italy 1-1 Cameroon

 

By the time his men took to the pitch in Vigo for a third and final time on Wednesday 23 June, Enzo Bearzot knew it was now very much “do or die” time. The previous afternoon in La Coruna, Poland had finally ‘come to the party’, and in a big way! With Boniek ‘conducting the orchestra’, Poland had smashed Peru 5-1, thereby ensuring they would definitely qualify for the second phase of the competition. It put Italy under huge pressure to find a good performance themselves.

The boss made just one change from the side that had fallen away in the second half against Peru, Inter Milan’s Gabriele Oriali coming into midfield in place of club-mate Gianpiero Marini:

 

Zoff (c);

Scirea;

Gentile, Collovati, Cabrini;

Conti, Oriali, Tardelli, Graziani;

Antognoni;

Rossi.

 

The Spanish public in Vigo had somewhat ‘fallen out of love’ with their temporary “home” side too, only 20,000 turning out for Italy’s clash with Cameroon. The Africans had veteran striker Roger Milla in their line-up, but were otherwise little-known to most observers in Europe.

Sporting their change strip of white shirts, white shorts and blue socks, the Azzurri were, once again, expected to put their inexperienced opponents under immense pressure and secure the result they needed without much problem.

Except that it didn’t happen- again. Despite having the lion’s share of possession, the Italians again struggled to fashion clear-cut openings against a side that were happy to soak up pressure and play on the counter-attack.

 

With time rolling past and a possible World Cup exit just one mistake away, fervent Italian prayers appeared to have been answered when Fiorentina’s Francesco Graziani finally broke the deadlock on the hour mark. Graziani met an inviting left-wing cross with a superb looping header back into the keeper’s right-hand corner.

However, the Italian fans’ cheers were strangled in their throats as Cameroon midfielder Gregoire Mbida caught the Italians napping, immediately equalising from the re-start in play.

Despite yet more late pressure, the Italians couldn’t find a way to breach the Cameroon rearguard again. Indeed, they were rescued from World Cup elimination by a great late save by Zoff from Michel Kaham. Would a 1-1 draw be enough to scrap through in second place though?

It was, just, but Enzo Bearzot had come within a hair’s breadth of elimination in a Group which should have been comfortable for a squad like he had at his disposal. Italy qualified over Cameroon for the second phase by virtue of having scored ONE more goal than the Africans in the three games played….it was the finest of fine margins.

On such small details can destiny be decided. In light of the glory to come, Bearzot and his charges had escaped complete ignominy, and both national and international derision, by a single goal scored and a great piece of work from their veteran goalkeeper.

Predictably, they were not spared a further mauling from the irate paparazzi, but Bearzot and his squad had already decided not to interact in any way with the press for the remainder of the tournament, after the abuse they had endured following the Peru game.

However slim the margin, Italy were still in the tournament. Join me again next time, as we look back at how they fared in Phase II, which would take the form of yet another Group stage.