It might seem hard to believe nowadays, but the Italian national team used to have a plan. And back in 1986, following a disappointing World Cup in Mexico, that plan even had a name. That name was Azeglio Vicini.
This was a project that took not weeks, not months but years in the preparation. The heir to Enzo Bearzot had been in waiting for about a decade, serving his apprenticeship with the Azzurri's youth set-up. This was a lengthy love-letter to the national team, not a Tweet typed late at night in a drunken haze.
Everyone knew the former Vicenza, Sampdoria and Brescia player had a tough act to follow. His pipe-puffing predecessor - who had come up through the federation coaching ranks in similar fashion - had delivered the long-dreamed of World Cup in 1982. Now the mission was clear, to secure the trophy again - and on home soil - in four years’ time.
Vicini had the advantage of a core of players he had worked with over several years in the Under 21 set-up. Walter Zenga, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini, Giuseppe Giannini, Riccardo Ferri, Roberto Donadoni and Fernando De Napoli were all graduates of a side which lost out to Spain in the European Under-21 Championship Final of 1986. These were the building blocks he would use to construct his hopes of fulfilling the dream of millions at Italia 90.
The new Commissario Tecnico was given time - and breathing space - to prepare his bid. The European Championship in West Germany in 1988 was seen as a test run, nothing more, for the bigger challenge ahead. His Azzurri performed respectably - undefeated in a group with the hosts, Spain and Denmark - before defeat by the Soviet Union at the semi-final stage. It seemed perfect, nobody wanted them to peak too soon.
A strange limbo followed, of course, with only friendly games in the build-up to hosting the World Cup along, with the pesky emergence of two troublesome talents. A young lad at Fiorentina, Roberto Baggio, was ripping apart defences in Serie A with his sumptuous skills while Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci - a bug-eyed bomber from Sicily - had exploded in the top flight in his first season with Juventus. Neither had graduated through Vicini's Under-21 ‘academy’, but the clamour for them to make the starting XI grew steadily in the year or so preceding the tournament. Vicini faced a conundrum - stay loyal to the team he had been building so methodically or rip it up to include an outrageous talent and an in-form goalscorer?
You sensed this was a bit of a torture for such a decent man. He wanted to be fair to the players who had taken him on the journey to the eve of Italia 90, but he was pragmatic enough to realise he could not ignore the claims of his deadly double-act. Nonetheless, the opening game with Austria hinted that he would stick with the tried-and-tested rather than attempt to ride the wave of popular opinion on who should play. But matters on the field delivered a message he was not keen to hear.
With neither Baggio nor Schillaci in the side, the Azzurri laboured to a 0-0 draw at the Olimpico until the bold Toto entered the fray and made an almost-immediate impact. A legend was in the process of being born but Vicini's selection headache was beginning to worsen. Still, he stuck with his favoured Gianluca Vialli-Andrea Carnevale combination for game two - against the US - and got another narrow 1-0 victory. However, his nagging doubts became an outright nightmare after the group decider with Czechoslovakia. Schillaci and Baggio both started and scored - the latter an absolute beauty - and more selection convictions had to be thrown out of the window.
The pair then started and helped to see off both Uruguay and Ireland to set up an almighty clash with Argentina in the semi-finals in Naples. But, for this biggest game, Vicini blinked. Back came Vialli and out went Baggio only to come on as a substitute late in that ill-fated game which ended in elimination on penalties. The ‘Notti Magiche’ - or Magical Nights - were over.
Nobody will ever know if the ‘Divin Codino’ could have done enough in starting that game to send Italy into the Final, but the question marks will always remain. A Coach has to stand and fall on such difficult choices, and the Italy boss fell agonisingly short. But for an ill-fated decision to come for a cross by Zenga - the first goal he had conceded all tournament - he might well have lifted the cup that a nation aspired to. These are the narrow, hurtful margins of football.
It signalled the beginning of the end for Vicini, whose failure to lead Italy to Euro 92 sealed his fate. It also ended the era of the understudy taking the helm as the Azzurri turned to successful former Milan Coach Arrigo Sacchi. What a roller coaster that would turn out to be. Cesare Maldini would be a brief throwback to the “federation man", but since then the national team has looked to club career over youth development as its top selection criteria.
Vicini would briefly dabble in club management himself but threw in the towel after just a couple of seasons. Still, looking back, his record with his country stands comparison with the best. His win rate was close to 60 percent over five years in charge, and he performed creditably at two major championships. The tributes which have come in speak volumes of a decent, measured man who tried his utmost to achieve a country's dream.
Seeing his picture back in the papers has brought those memories flooding back. A theme tune of Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennato or Luciano Pavarotti - depending on where you watched the competition - seems to accompany his appearance. We lived those days intensely - we prayed and feared and cursed and roared in delight and despair. The Coach was a part of that landscape, simply trying to balance all the competing desires of such a passionate footballing nation. He came within a whisker of delivering and produced some gems of joy, which will never be forgotten. For those, I think, we can all be grateful. We'll always have Italia 90 - and Azeglio Vicini was a precious part of that glorious adventure.
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