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.
The Republic of Ireland were the Azzurri’s opponents in the quarter-final. Their penalty kick win over Romania had earned them a dream tie against the hosts. And with the physical Tony Cascarino and Niall Quinn, they seemed to have the presence to worry the Italians. But it was that man Schillaci who again proved the match winner. Roberto Donadoni’s powerful shot was parried by Pat Bonner straight into the path of the Juventus striker who side-footed it into the empty net.
Having secured a place in the last four it was off to Naples for the semi-final against Argentina. It proved to be a game that would be etched on Italian fans’ minds forever and unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The build-up to the tie was hijacked by Diego Maradona. With the game set in his own back yard he called upon the people of Naples to remember everything he had done for their club and city. It proved to be a masterstroke. “It was a different atmosphere from Rome,” recalls Serena. “We noticed it as soon as we arrived at the stadium. There were odd sections of Italians in the crowd who were not against us but were cheering on Maradona.”
As 27 million Italians sat down in front of their TVs, there was instant shock in store as Vicini decided to drop Baggio and recall Vialli. The Samp striker was like a son to the Italy boss. There was no way that Gianluca was in better form than Baggio yet sentiments seemed to have got the better of the Coach. Vialli did play a part in Schillaci’s goal but as he was later replaced his World Cup dream had ended forever. “Only a select group of players are ever crowned world champions,” philosophises Vialli. “You play once a month for your country, for a tournament that is every four years. Then during that phase you need to be at the top of your game with a certain amount of fortune. At the end of the day it’s all about luck.”
That was the one thing the Azzurri didn’t have that night. Tactically everything seemed to be working. Ferri and Bergomi would alternate the man marking of Maradona and Claudio Caniggia, while the Azzurri midfield took a grasp of the game. When Schillaci slotted in the opener it seemed as if the game was over. Italy were on the verge of the World Cup Final. But the side started to tire. “We should have kept attacking because they were there to be finished off,” says Giannini in hindsight. “Instead we were slowly but surely pushed back.”
Then came the body blow in the 68th minute, one that must still haunt Walter Zenga to this very day. Up to that point he had yet to concede a goal in the tournament but his 517-minute run - which was a new World Cup record - swiftly came to an end.
“There is no doubt that Walter was the most responsible for that goal,” recalls his former Inter teammate Ferri. “He came for it without calling and I couldn’t do anything to stop Caniggia flicking the ball on. I thought Zenga was still on his line and therefore ready to take it comfortably.” Unfortunately that didn’t happen. As a host of players held their heads, they began to stare defeat in the face.
The shell-shocked Italians tried to react. Baggio replaced Vialli, while Serena came on for Giannini. But by the time Luigi De Agostini saw his chance parried by the almost always-flapping Sergio Goicoechea, the dreaded penalty shoot-out was on its way. Compiling his list of penalty takers, Vicini was one short. With Vialli and Giannini both replaced, he’d lost two players who would have taken a spot kick. Add to that fact players like Ferri and Bergomi had never even dreamed about taking a penalty, and Schillaci struggling with a foot problem, Vicini asked Serena to be his last kicker. The forward told the Coach to go around and ask again. He did but they were still one short. Serena grudgingly accepted.
The pressure was of titanic proportions. Home advantage had suddenly become home disadvantage. “We had everything to lose and nothing to gain,” says Vialli. By the time Roberto Donadoni stepped up to the spot no one had missed. Baresi, Baggio and De Agostini all slotted home. But the midfielder, who’d had a wonderful tournament up to that point, saw his shot saved. Maradona was next and he coolly slotted home past the hapless Zenga, whose gold crucifix was now outside his silver shirt.
Italy’s hopes of staying in the competition rested on the shoulders of Aldo Serena. “Before and after the kick I could hear absolutely nothing,” says the former Inter player. “I had a total mental block. I wanted to kick it in the corner and hard. In the end I did neither.” Argentina had won. It was on that day Italy’s penalty illness was diagnosed. It would be another 10 years before a cure was found.
The nation went into mass mourning at an unexpected and undeserved defeat. “The whole world just seemed to fall apart around us,” remembers Schillaci. “At that stage I just kept thinking about all the ifs and buts. It took a long time to get over the defeat.”
Italy’s dream had evaporated. Argentina were to face West Germany in the Final after they had beaten the old enemy and the tears of Paul Gascoigne in a thrilling Turin semi-final on penalties. The third place play-off between England and Italy ended in an insignificant Azzurri 2-1 victory which did nothing more that help Schillaci win the Golden Boot with six goals.
But for many Azzurri fans their last memory from Italia ‘90 is also the saddest. The day that ‘our world champions’ failed to capture a crown they so desperately deserved. A lot is made of the fact that the Dutch side of the 1970s were the best team to never win the World Cup. This Italy side comes a very close second. As Riccardo Ferri outlined: “We lost a World Cup after conceding just one goal and never losing a game. This is something that we will have to live with forever.”