A dip into the Football Italia archives has Antonio Labbate reflecting on Italia ‘90, where under expectation, the tournament’s hosts came so close to victory.
Italian expectancy was high. Eight years on from the success of 1982, people around the peninsula justifiably believed that a new generation of Azzurri footballers were ready to achieve something important. All the ingredients seemed to be there. Italy – winners in Rome back in 1934 - were playing on home turf again, in front of adoring fans and in stadia familiar to them. But most importantly Italy had a side capable of victory, a team that will live long in the memory for their effective and entertaining style of football.
“At the time we said our aim was to get into the last four,” recalls then Coach Azeglio Vicini. “But obviously we hoped we could go all the way and win it. In the end the pressure didn’t really affect the side because I firmly believe they gave their best in every single game.”
In many ways it was easy for Vicini. A large majority of the squad were players he had helped to develop while he was the boss of the Under-21 side. It was virtually the same squad that got to the 1986 European Under-21 Championship Final only to lose on penalties to Spain.
On the morning of Italy’s opening game against Austria one Italian paper branded the headline: ‘Failure will not be tolerated.’ But those words were no threat, only recognition of the great chance that lay before them. After all the quality was astonishing. There was a Milan base of defenders. Inter were represented by goalkeeper Walter Zenga, captain Giuseppe Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri. The Rossoneri gave Italy Franco Baresi and a youthful Paolo Maldini.
The midfield had the likes of Giuseppe Giannini, Fernando De Napoli, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni and Luigi De Agostini. In attack there was the great hope in Gianluca Vialli, plus Andrea Carnevale, Aldo Serena, Roberto Mancini, Roberto Baggio and a relatively unknown Sicilian going by the name of Salvatore Schillaci.
The World Cup may have officially started amongst the razzmatazz of Milan as holders Argentina lost to nine-man Cameroon, but it wasn’t until that Saturday night at the Olimpico that the worldwide public saw the true meaning of the World Cup. The stadium was a sea of green, white and red as Italy took their first step towards proposed glory.
Going into the game, Vicini had only one selection problem. Who would partner Gianluca Vialli? As Serena later outlined: “Going into the Finals, Vicini didn’t know whom to pick between Carnevale, Schillaci and myself. In fact I don’t think he ever knew.” In the end it was Napoli’s Carnevale who was handed a starting place after a good season at the San Paolo.
What followed was 90 minutes of great attacking football. Italy created chance after chance only to be denied by the post, goalkeeper Klaus Lindenberger and misfortune. But the tide turned just four minutes after Schillaci replaced Carnevale late in the second half. “I remember sitting on the bench and Stefano Tacconi turned to me and said I would go on and score with a header,” recalls Schillaci. The Juventus ‘keeper was right. As Vialli whipped in the cross, Toto got his small frame between two giant defenders to head the ball into the net. Italy had their victory.
USA were next and by all accounts their display in the 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia clearly indicated an Italian walkover. Vialli and Carnevale were again selected up front to score the goals that would secure victory. However, things didn’t go exactly to plan. “We underestimated them,” said Giannini. “After all they were only America and we were thinking that we’d put three or four past them.” Vicini commented: “They were the only side in the whole tournament that caused our defence real problems.”
Italy still won 1-0 thanks to a splendid finish from Roma captain Giannini. But the game will also be remembered for Luca Vialli’s penalty miss - one that he has never eradicated from his mind. “I’ve played in two World Cup Finals and not scored in any of them. It was the best chance to open my account. But in the silence of the crowd I simply heard the ball strike the post. It’s a noise that has stayed with me forever.”
With qualification secured, Italy needed to beat Czechoslovakia in the final group game in order to remain in the capital. Vicini unleashed not only Schillaci from the start but also unveiled Roberto Baggio to the world. Vialli was rested with an injury, while Carnevale was dropped to the stands following his substitution against America. Italy were again a joy to watch as Schillaci netted the opener while Baggio rounded off a great display with one of the best goals ever seen in a World Cup competition.
Going into the second round only the Azzurri and Brazil had 100 percent records, even if the South American side were by no means living up to their exciting brand of football that had been witnessed at Spain ‘82 or Mexico ‘86. It was their continental cousins Uruguay who were next for Italy. A physical side with the added class of Enzo Francescoli, the Italians didn’t take them for granted. It was only after Vicini had brought on Serena to form a trident attack that the home side broke through. A long kick by Zenga was flicked on by the substitute into the path of Schillaci who unleashed a 30-yard strike that looked destined for the stands only for it to dip under the bar. Serena finished off the scoring himself as he netted the second to celebrate his birthday in style.