Saluto Azzurri

Italy — the second most successful team in the World Cup, with four titles — brings an enigmatic essence to football’s premier event. Its maiden championship came in the Fascist era, in 1934.

Italian football has always been sheathed in mystique, one that has been accentuated by a queer mix of iridescent potential and unrelenting controversies. A quick search of Italian football on the internet, points to incidents of violence and corruption that threaten to detract from the National team’s achievements.

Nevertheless, Italy — the second most successful team in the World Cup, with four titles — brings an enigmatic essence to football’s premier event. Its maiden championship came in the Fascist era, in 1934. With Italy playing host, Benito Mussolini felt — not without reason — that victory on home soil would be a prime vehicle to advance his propaganda. Vittorio Pozzo, Italy’s tactically-shrewd coach, ensured the team was primed for a robust display. The team acquired the services of top players such as Raimundo Orsi, Enrique Guaita and Luis Monti from Argentina by virtue of them being Oriundi (of Italian ancestry).

After edging out the Austrian Wunderteam in the semi-final, Italy proceeded to beat Czechoslovakia in front of over 50,000 fans at Rome’s Stadio PNF in the summit clash. Inside-forward Giuseppe Meazza was now a National icon.

The next edition in France saw The Azzurri perform an encore. On the eve of the final against Hungary, the Italian players had reportedly received a terse message from Mussolini: “Win or die.” After the clash, which Italy eventually won, Hungarian goalie Antal Szabo is reported to have said: “I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”

Il Vecchio Maestro (the Old Master) Pozzo’s reputation as one of Italy’s greatest-ever coaches — if not the greatest — was sealed that day. In the 60s, Italy had perfected its defensive system catenaccio or bolted gate that comprised four defenders and a sweeper. An attritional game, intended to frustrate its opponents, became the centrepiece of Italy’s strategy for many years. Two years after being crowned European champion, Italy approached the 1970 World Cup as a favourite. With players such as Giacinto Facchetti, Luigi Riva, Dino Zoff, Gianni Rivera, and Roberto Boninsegna, the team is regarded one of the greatest ever to have turned out for Italy. After winning the ‘Match of the Century’ versus West Germany 4-3, the Squadra Azzurra went down to Brazil in the final.

In 1982, Enzo Bearzot’s side was in rollicking form, tossing aside any opposition with disdain to win its third title. Italy’s captain, Dino Zoff, who was 40 when he played the final against West Germany, remains the oldest man to receive the winner’s medal.

Twelve years later, Roberto Baggio’s botched penalty led to heartbreak for Italy in the final against Brazil. In the lead-up to the 2006 edition, more than half of the Italian squad played for clubs mired in the Calciopoli corruption scandal. But Marcello Lippi’s men bucked the odds to sneak past France in a tense final. A moment of madness resulted in Zinedine Zidane head-butting Marco Matterazzi. Italy eventually exorcised the ghosts of ’94 to prevail in a penalty shootout.

In the recent past, Italy, under Cesare Prandelli, has evolved into a more tactically flexible side. Last November, Germany coach Joachim Low lauded Italy’s fluidity. “They come as a wolf in sheep’s clothing as you never know what to expect from this team. They can adjust their game like no other team in the world, they are illusionists.”

* * * A goal-scoring machine

Paolo Rossi, with six goals, won the `Golden Boot' award in Italy's successful 1982 World Cup campaign. His method was minimalist; with economic movement and prescient positioning, Rossi's striking prowess belied his less-than-imposing frame.

In 1980, he was embroiled in the infamous `Totonero' betting scandal. Rossi was handed out a three-year suspension that was later reduced to two. The striker, however, maintained he was innocent. When he returned to action, weeks before the '82 World Cup, Italy's coach Enzo Bearzot punted on the former's ability and named him in the squad. Explaining the rationale behind his decision, Bearzot said: "I knew that if Rossi wasn't in Spain, I wouldn't have had an opportunist inside the penalty box. In that area, he was really good, really fast, always ready to fool defenders with his feints."In the game against Brazil, `Pablito' accomplished a sparkling hattrick to set up a win for his side. A brace in the semi-final against Poland was followed by a strike versus West Germany in the final. Many of his critics had been duly silenced. "I felt protected, and that was a decisive factor," he later said. As further con-firmation of his blistering run arrived the European Footballer of the Year award later that year.