Italy went to Argentina in 1978 expecting to be on the first plane home. Instead, Enzo Bearzot’s side laid the foundations for a glorious tournament in Spain four years later. Giancarlo Rinaldi reminisces.
If you have to rebuild the national team, then what better place to start than Turin. That was the way most minds in Italy were working after a dismal World Cup in West Germany in 1974 and failure to qualify for the European Nations Cup two years later. With Juventus the undisputed kings of the domestic scene it seemed logical to harness their strength in the hope of writing some better chapters in the Azzurri’s history.
The boys in black and white were on their way to a fifth title in seven years on the eve of the expedition to Argentina. And most of these victories had been achieved without stranieri thanks to the ban on imports brought in back in 1964. All in all, it appeared clear to Enzo Bearzot that the only way to go was with the best that Juve Coach Giovanni Trapattoni could provide.
Along with the ‘blocco Juventus’ came frail-looking Vicenza striker Paolo Rossi, battling Bologna defender Mauro Bellugi and principal playmaker Giancarlo Antognoni. This last player in particular left the country divided. Some saw him as the Azzurri's prime creative force while others condemned him as unworthy of La Nazionale.
After qualifying ahead of England on goal difference, in a group also containing Finland and Luxembourg, little was expected of the new look squad. A drab draw with Yugoslavia just a couple of weeks before the tournament did nothing to raise expectations. “Italy arrived in Argentina after a disastrous game in Rome against Yugoslavia,” recalls famed journalist Gian Paolo Ormezzano. “The match finished 0-0 but there was no substance to Italy’s play. Bearzot found public opinion, or rather the media who represent it, totally against him. Many Italians hoped the team would be knocked out quickly and get home.”
Their opening fixture started in a manner which seemed to confirm the most gloomy predictions. Italy went a goal behind to what was the third quickest strike in World Cup history, Bernard Lacombe finding the net inside 30 seconds. The writing was on the wall as far as the old cynics were concerned.
Then something quite dramatic happened and a spirit started to emerge in Mar del Plata. Rossi, a goal grabber supreme, put the sides level just before the half-hour mark. And Renato Zaccarelli completed a remarkable comeback to get the Azzurri off to a flying start in a group where some had predicted they would fail to find a single point.
If the doubters back home were shocked by this win then they did little to show it. France, they decided, were not much of a team and the real reckoning was around the corner. Instead, Italy wiped the floor with a decent Hungarian side to mean that their final match with Argentina was a formality - both teams were already through to the next stage.
Many predicted that the Italians would accept defeat in their final group game to allow the host nation to remain in Buenos Aires. But Dino Zoff and his teammates had clearly got a taste for victory. With the kind of classic counter-attack that has long been the hallmark of Serie A sides, Roberto Bettega swept home a beautiful one-two with Rossi to ensure it was Italy who progressed as group winners.
Now nobody could deny the Azzurri were one of the revelations of the tournament. They had secured themselves a spot in what appeared the easier second round group along with West Germany, Austria and Holland. Suddenly, expectation shifted up a notch for a team that few had rated on the eve of the event. Something snapped in the team, however, and their scoring confidence disappeared. A 0-0 draw with the Germans was followed by a single goal victory over Austria. The results still meant that their last group game with Holland was effectively a showdown for a spot in the World Cup Final.