For veterans such as Gianluigi Buffon, Italia ’90 holds a special place in the memory bank. It was after watching African underdogs Cameroon, led by goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono, reach the quarter-finals that 12-year-old Gigi was inspired to become a goalkeeper. “After Italy, they were the team I supported. They were my football heroes.”
Others currently dazzling the world in Brazil were not even born when Italy hosted the world’s biggest party in 1990.
Then there’s the rare breed in Brazil who lived Italia ’90 firsthand. This includes Uruguay boss Oscar Tabarez, who is busy preparing for another meeting with the Azzurri, 24 years after the pair last tussled at the World Cup.
In June 1990, Uruguay stood in the way of Italian progression through their World Cup. A successful group phase – Italy won three from three – had lifted confidence. Before the finals commenced the main concern surrounding Azeglio Vicini’s team was an inability to find the net. After belting four past Bulgaria in September 1989, a subsequent six game spell yielded just two goals.
They weren’t exactly prolific against Austria, the United States, or Czechoslovakia either. Yet three wins, four goals, three clean sheets and two new stars in Salvatore Schillaci and Roberto Baggio signalled things were on the right path. Schillaci especially had captured the hearts of a fanatical nation. His goal against Austria shortly after coming on as a substitute started the love affair. Adding to his personal tally versus the Czech’s enamoured the wide-eyed Sicilian even further to the adoring public.
While Italy’s progress was for the most part smooth, Tabarez and Uruguay were nearly boarding an early flight home to Montevideo. A side boasting prodigious attacking talent – Enzo Francescoli, Lazio’s Ruben Sosa, Genoa’s Carlos Aguilera and soon-to-be Serie A figure Daniel Fonseca – they were Copa America runners-up in 1989, before a good run in qualifying led to a spot in Italy. That was followed by mixed results leading up to the tournament.
The Celeste commenced slowly in Group E. A scoreless draw with Spain – thanks to Sosa’s penalty miss – was followed by a loss to Enzo Scifo’s Belgium. As their third group match with South Korea ticked away, Uruguay appeared to be headed home without a whimper. Then, a dramatic injury time header from Fonseca meant they qualified in third, the lowest of the four extra qualifiers.
Tabarez admitted they were poor in victory: “We played very badly, but we obtained the result. We failed in all major aspects – in strategy, technique, tactics. Now we’ll have to study the problems.” Surely, then, they would pose little threat to Vicini’s men. Although prior to he warned that: “in the face of difficult moments and tough rivals, Uruguay play best.”
In reaching the Copa America Final and the World Cup, Tabarez – ‘The Teacher’ – was in charge of a side not afraid to express itself. He took over a team more renowned for its cynical football – highlighted at Mexico 1986 – but had the pieces of the puzzle to play a free-flowing game. Their confidence looked shattered after Sosa’s penalty miss and by the time Uruguay faced Italy, Tabarez was on the ropes. He was slaughtered back home after the Belgium defeat, but saved by Fonseca. The decision was made to play a more cautious side against the hosts, one with four changes.
Italy weren’t preparing for the quarter-finals just yet. Vicini: “We face our most difficult opponent.” Luigi De Agostini replaced Roberto Donadoni, but otherwise it was the same XI which had won 2-0 against Czechoslovakia six days earlier. This meant another chance for Baggio and Schillaci in attack. “We have a midfield whose greatest strength is that they can move and adapt,” Vicini noted.
On a sweltering summer’s evening Rome’s Stadio Olimpico was awash with green, white and red flags, a wall of sound and a festival atmosphere. Italy were intent on continuing the Notti Magiche, but found their rhythm interrupted by a series of niggling fouls. Schillaci was menacing but without success. At the other end Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi and Co. had to be wary of Uruguayan counters. At the interval it was scoreless. Finally, Uruguay were starting to show their mettle.
Celeste goalkeeper Fernando Alvez was on hand early in the second half to make two fine saves – one when Schillaci was through on goal and a second from De Agostini’s wicked free-kick. Still no Italian joy, even with the introduction of striker, and birthday boy, Aldo Serena, 30 that day.
That was until the 65th minute. Walter Zenga’s long clearance up-field was helped on by Baggio and then Serena. Perfectly, in fact, for the run of Schillaci. He unleashed an unstoppable first-time shot that swerved past Alvez and sent the Olimpico crazy.
“The pass was so good that I had to do something with it,” Schillaci said of his goal. “A good feeling told me to shoot from there, and it was a nice change to score with my feet, after putting away two headers in previous games.” On whether it was his most beautiful goal, Schillaci replied: “All goals are beautiful.” He also acknowledged: “it was a very difficult game.”
The Azzurri made sure of their passage to the last eight in the 83rd minute. Giuseppe Giannini’s free-kick was met by the birthday boy, with Serena’s header setting up a meeting with the Republic of Ireland.
Vicini, meanwhile, who had swapped midfielder Nicola Berti for Serena, praised his players’ versatility: “It was a difficult game, but we kept attacking. I can count on players of different characteristics. It was important to try something else.” He continued: “This was not the first time my substitutions improved the team, but that is normal in a stressful game. You say to yourself, ‘If this doesn’t work out, I can make changes’.”
His opposite number seemed resigned to the prowess of a striker enjoying the month of his life. “He [Schillaci] has uncommon speed and explosiveness. He’s very tough to cover.”
While Italy continued their triumphant march until halted by Argentina in the semi-finals, the defeat would mean the end of the road for Tabarez and the Celeste. The Teacher left to educate the troops at Boca Juniors and after a successful stint he made his way to Europe in 1994 – returning to Italy to take charge of Cagliari.
He led the Sardinian club to a top-half finish, before receiving a call from Milan in 1996 to replace Fabio Capello. It proved disastrous. A seventh loss in all competitions in early December prompted Silvio Berlusconi to ‘encourage’ Tabarez to hand in his resignation. The feeling in the Press was he didn’t get much of a go.
And as Tabarez recalls, he turned up at a team in need of change. “I arrived at the end of a cycle of success obtained by a group of players who now found themselves at the end of their careers. The 1994 Champions League victory was a swansong for Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Zvonimir Boban, and Dejan Savicevic.
“Joining after that was really very tough. Moreover they recalled Arrigo Sacchi to replace me. He didn’t do any better than me [Milan finished 11th] and then Fabio Capello came back and he didn’t do any better either. His points-per-game average was inferior to mine. It took Carlo Ancelotti to invert the tendency.”
A second stint at Cagliari went much the same way as Milan. There, Tabarez took charge for a quartet of matches and picked up a solitary point.
The veteran Coach was out of the game for four years after a second spell at Boca ended in 2002. His country came calling after their failure to reach Germany 2006 and Tabarez obliged, returning to take charge of the best generation of Uruguayans since the early 1990s.
Tabarez has since confronted the Italians – a friendly win in Rome in 2011 and the third-place shootout defeat at last year’s Confederations Cup – but nothing compared to Tuesday’s showdown. The match in Natal decides who qualifies for the Last 16 and who faces an embarrassing early exit.
And Tabarez, three years old when Uruguay last lifted the World Cup, has rediscovered his zeal and winning edge, and goes into the contest with every confidence his team can excel. He has done a fine job with the national team, qualifying for the past two World Cups – with a fourth-place finish in South Africa – and triumphing in the 2011 Copa America.
Led by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, it’s a team that has a little of the traditional Italy in it. Uruguay are the most solid of South America’s qualifiers at the back, and have great flair in attack. And since Tabarez took over, they have gained a winning edge in addition to the traditional Uruguayan Garra Charrua.
It looks set to be a fascinating contest and, with it all to play for in Natal, can Tabarez finally get one over the Azzurri, or will this Italy pick up where Vicini’s men left off 24 years ago?