In part one, we looked at how Enzo Bearzot and his Italian troops had escaped the ignominy of elimination from Espana ’82 at the end of Phase I by the finest of margins. The fact that they had scored a single goal more than Cameroon had been the difference between qualification and a humiliating early exit.
That single goal gave Italy the runners-up spot in Group One behind Poland, who had been the sole victors in any of the Group games when beating Peru 5-1.
Now, the Azzurri moved base from Vigo in North West Spain to the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, in the North East. It was time for Phase II…
In their wisdom, FIFA had decided to introduce a second round-robin phase into this World Cup Finals tournament, rather than have qualifying teams move straight into a knock-out phase after the initial Group stage was concluded. Given that several heavily-fancied sides such as Italy, Argentina and hosts Spain had surprisingly failed to win their opening phase groups (the hosts were famously upstaged by Northern Ireland in Valencia), this had now thrown up some mouth-watering games.
The remaining countries were divided up into four groups (A, B, C and D) of three teams each. Each side would play both the other teams in their group, with each of the four group winners progressing forward to contest the semi-finals. At the semi-final stage, it would be the winner of A against the winner of C, and the winner of B against the winner of D.
Due to not finishing top of their Group (Poland had done so by beating Peru 5-1), Italy were placed into Second Phase Group C…. along with ‘minnows’ BRAZIL and ARGENTINA! It was the most mouth-watering “Group of Death” of all time.
It was also the stuff of both dreams and nightmares for FIFA. That’s because, as attractive as these games were obviously going to be, Group C was scheduled to be contested at the old Sarria Stadium in Barcelona, home of Espanyol. It only had a capacity of 44,000, nowhere near big enough to accommodate the anticipated demand for tickets for such eye-catching fixtures.
By contrast, Group A, which now comprised Poland, Belgium and the Soviet Union, was based at the nearby Camp Nou stadium. Its 115,000 capacity was unlikely to be troubled by those sides. Indeed, the game between Belgium and U.S.S.R. was watched by only 45,000 people.
The Phase II groups were as follows:
Group A: Belgium, Poland, Soviet Union;
Group B: England, Spain, West Germany;
Group C: Argentina, Brazil, Italy;
Group D: Austria, France, Northern Ireland.
Game 1: Sarria, Barcelona, 29 June: Italy 2-1 Argentina
Italy had scraped through the opening phase. They now faced a showdown with the reigning World Champions, Argentina, for the whom much-heralded wonderkid, Diego Maradona, had so far been rather ‘hit and miss’. In all honesty, neither side were expected to emerge from a group that also included everyone’s favourites to win the tournament, Brazil.
On the plus side, Bearzot had been fortunate with injuries. The side that he had consistently put his trust in so far had remained injury-free, so it was no surprise when he named the same team that had drawn 1-1 with Cameroon six days earlier. The Italian media may not have been too happy with his selection, though. They had spent the past week denigrating Paolo Rossi in particular, questioning both why he was in the squad in the first place, and now why Bearzot persisted with the Juventus striker when he was so clearly out of form and struggling for fitness.
Gentile, Collovati, Cabrini;
Conti, Oriali, Tardelli, Graziani;
The Argentineans, still under the astute guidance of Cesar Luis Menotti, had also failed to show much of their swagger in the opening phase (they lost the opening game of the tournament to Belgium) but nobody doubted the quality within their squad. They were, after all, reigning World Champions. That said, in reality, it was a squad ‘divided in two’. There were the older heads who had contributed to the glory of 1978, and the ‘new boys’, younger players who had yet to prove themselves worthy of playing for the World Champions.
Additionally, the comprehensive defeat to the British armed forces in the recently ended Falklands War had shocked some of the players. Most were still based within Argentina, and (like most of the population) had believed the military junta government’s propaganda about the war assuredly ending in a glorious triumph for their nation. Therefore, the ‘unexpected’ defeat had demoralised the squad further, most particularly Ossie Ardiles, who had lost a cousin in the fighting.
Both sides knew that to have any realistic chance of progressing to the semi-final stage they needed to win this opening game, before having to face the mighty Brazilians.
Therefore, this game would go one of two ways for Italy: either they would finally ‘turn up to the party’ and show what they could do, or they would go home with barely a whimper, where the scorn from the media and public alike would be withering and merciless.
Almost as could have been scripted, the opening half in Barcelona was a tight, tense, niggly affair with both defences well on top. Paolo Rossi, again looking bereft of both energy and confidence, made the first telling contribution of the game; getting his name noted in Romanian referee Rainea’s book after 15 minutes.
As the half wore on, it became clear that Gentile had been detailed to stick to Maradona like a second skin, with Collovati doing likewise to the goalscoring hero of 1978, Mario Kempes. Both strikers had their names taken by the referee in quick succession as growing frustration saw them lash out at both their tormentors and, in Maradona’s case, at the referee himself, verbally.
Ossie Ardiles, bizarrely playing in the number 1 shirt in midfield (goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol wore number 7), was also booked as Argentine tempers became ever more frayed at the suffocating tactics the Italians were subjecting them to.
Gentile (known to his team-mates as ‘Gaddafi’ due to his Libyan birth and the fact that he somewhat resembled the then Libyan dictator), predictably overstepped the mark in attempting to nullify Maradona and was likewise booked just before the half-time interval. He could hardly complain; afterwards, the statisticians reported that he’d fouled Maradona no less than ELEVEN times in the first half alone….!
Italy make the football do the work…
However, what the Italians were very, very gifted at doing was to make the football ‘do the running’. Their technique for ‘pass and move’ football was simply breathtaking at times. As the heat and tension of a huge World Cup game started to take its wearying toll on the Argentina players, the Azzurri came into their own.
After 57 minutes, Italy broke the deadlock with a lovely well-worked team goal. Left-back Antonio Cabrini cleared a ball up to Paolo Rossi at the centre-circle. He played it off quickly to Bruno Conti, whose diagonal ball forward toward the left-side of the Argentina area was dummied by Marco Tardelli for Giancarlo Antognoni. The Fiorentina maestro, ever quick of thought, feigned to play it back to the right but instead stroked the ball out to his left for the overlapping Tardelli to firmly slot left-footed into the far corner past a bamboozled Fillol.
It was almost the first time in the tournament that the Italians had shown what a formidable team they could be when things ‘clicked’; the relief and joy in Tardelli’s celebrations were wholly transparent.
Menotti made a desperate double substitution immediately, replacing the weary Kempes and ineffective Ramon Diaz with attacking midfielders Gabriel Calderon and Jose Valencia, but less than ten minutes later the game had slipped beyond their reach.
Italy in cruise control for the first time…
This time Graziani released a wonderful ball through a high-lined Argentina defence for Rossi to charge in one-on-one against Fillol. The keeper did well to block Rossi’s tame effort, but the ball rebounded out towards the influential Conti, who kept a cool head to first outpace Fillol to the loose ball and then lay it back from the byline for left-back Cabrini to lash home.
Bearzot’s men looked comfortable at 2-0. He withdrew the tiring Oriali for Inter Milan club-mate Marini, and then introduced lively Inter Milan hitman Alessandro Altobelli for a spent Rossi.
Marco Tardelli inadvertently threw the Argentineans a lifeline when he conceded a tired free-kick with seven minutes left. As Dino Zoff tried to position his wall, legendary World Cup-winning skipper Daniel Passarella (who had lifted the famous trophy four years earlier) blasted his left-footed free-kick straight into the back of Zoff’s net from 25 yards out. Despite Italian protests that they hadn’t been ready for the set-piece to be taken, the goal stood.
However, any dreams the South Americans may have had of clawing their way back into the game were killed off instantly from the re-start. River Plate midfielder Américo Gallego was shown a straight red card for a terrible challenge, and with him went Argentina’s hopes of taking anything from the game.
At the final whistle, Italy had secured the triumph they had been desperate to achieve. Azzurri teamwork and determination had won the day over the individual flair of the emerging Diego Maradona, who had been smothered throughout by Claudio Gentile. Maradona was, by then, on the verge of signing for Catalonian giants Barcelona from his boyhood side, Boca Juniors. That move in itself would ensure the gifted young man learned valuable lessons in how to prevent a ‘minder’ like Gentile from locking him out of a game. Maradona’s time would come, in spectacular fashion, at Mexico ‘86.
Brazil vs. Argentina
Three days later, 2nd July, Argentina met Brazil at the same venue. Menotti’s defending Champions knew they had to overcome their more illustrious neighbours to have any hope of progressing to the semi-final stage. Any illusions they may have had about doing so were dispelled very quickly by Tele Santana’s samba side, a team that was overflowing with sublime talents.
Eleven minutes in, an impetuous foul on lumbering Brazilian striker Serginho resulted in an inviting free-kick position for the lethal left boot of Eder. His ferocious strike from 30 yards rattled back out off of the Argentina crossbar, straight to the on-rushing Zico who made no mistake from a few yards.
As the heat brought increasing exhaustion, the magic of Zico came to the fore. On 66 minutes, and with Argentina desperately seeking an equaliser, he released Falcao down the right side on a counter-attack with a wonderful flowing pass. The blond-haired maestro in turn floated an exceptional ball to the back post for Serginho to head powerfully into a net vacated by keeper Fillol, who was totally wrong-footed by the sheer quality of Falcao’s centre.
Any lingering doubts (and there can’t have been many) about who would now claim victory were removed nine minutes later. After some lovely team inter-passing, left-back Junior laid a ball inside to Zico, who returned the favour with a sumptuous pass through the static Argentina defence. Junior ran through to slide the ball under Fillol and give Brazil an unassailable 3-0 advantage.
Diego Maradona, once again overshadowed by the opposition, ended his tournament with the ignominy of a red card for a poor challenge on Brazilian substitute Batista five minutes from time. Ramon Diaz did score a well-taken goal in the dying seconds for the ten men, but it was all too little, too late for Argentina. They were out. Maradona had failed on the biggest stage this time, but he was about to begin his European club adventures at Camp Nou, just down the road.
Join me again next time as we look back at one of the greatest matches ever played on a World Cup Finals stage when Enzo Bearzot and his men faced the might of Zico and Brazil. We will also review how Italy went forward from that fateful day in Barcelona to claim their third World Cup, having been ‘written off’ by just about everyone in world football after a dreary First Phase showing.