Italy reached the Final when they played at Mexico in 1970, but returning 16 years later the Azzurri struggled to make any kind of impression. Nik Howe looks back on a disappointing tournament for Italy but one rich in controversy.
Originally awarded to Colombia, Mexico was handed the 1986 World Cup after their South American neighbours ran into financial difficulties. So they became the first country to host the tournament twice. Italy’s performance aside, and despite an horrific earthquake a mere eight months prior to the competition, it was widely regarded as the best World Cup since Mexico staged it in 1970.
The Azzurri entered the tournament in mixed form, an ageing squad carrying a weight of expectation having been crowned world champions four years earlier in Spain. Coach at that tournament was Enzo Bearzot and, despite failing even to qualify for the 1984 European Nations Cup, he remained in charge for Mexico ‘86.
Brazil were pre-tournament favourites but European champions France were expected to make a strong challenge along with Italy and Argentina - the latter inspired by a player plying his trade in Italy with Napoli, Diego Maradona. But, to accommodate TV scheduling, games were played in the blistering heat which threw open the tournament to one of the lesser lights such as the USSR, Uruguay or even the host nation, Mexico, to provide an upset.
Bearzot’s 22-man squad included 10 players left over from the success of ‘82 and twelve nearing or over 30. Despite having just won Lo Scudetto, Juventus provided only four players including captain Gaetano Scirea and defensive stalwart Antonio Cabrini. Names to look out for were Roma’s 1983 Scudetto winners Bruno Conti and Sebastiano Nela and Inter striker Alessandro Altobelli.
The Azzurri were placed in an easy group with the South Korea, playing in only their second World Cup, and Bulgaria - likely to suffer in the hot conditions. The 1978 winners Argentina looked their only real challengers. Italy opened the tournament with the first of 52 matches to be played over 30 days. It was a dour 1-1 draw with the Eastern Europeans in front of 95,000 expectant fans at the Azteca Stadium.
Despite being notorious for starting slowly, it was result that was widely condemned by the Italian Press. In a first half of few chances, the Nazionale took the lead through Altobelli just before the break. The second 45 minutes were much the same with neither side taking the upper hand. Italy failed to kill off the game and Bulgaria, through Nasko Sirakov, grabbed an equaliser five minutes from time.
It was a poor opener, but a stubborn Bearzot fielded a largely unchanged side for their second and tougher game against Argentina. The Azzurri got off to a perfect start, Altobelli again putting them ahead - this time from the penalty spot after just six minutes. Despite being aware of Maradona’s undoubted ability, the Italians failed to contain the No 10. Inevitably, he levelled the scores midway through the half. Despite dominating the rest of the match, Argentina failed to capitalise on that goal and the spoils were shared.
Italy’s final game was against group minnows South Korea and they had to get a result to be guaranteed a place in the second phase. Once again Bearzot refused to tinker with his starting formation despite his critics. The Azzurri remained focused, aware of their horrendous slip-up against North Korea in the 1966 tournament, and got off to the best possible start when Altobelli once again gave his side an early lead. After this the game petered out until the 62nd minute when, against the run of play, Choi Soon-Ho equalised.
Desperate for victory, the Nazionale began to chase the game and 10 minutes later that man Altobelli put Italy back in front. An own goal by Cho-Kung and a late consolation for the Koreans meant the game ended 3-2. The Azzurri had qualified for the next round behind group winners Argentina. Despite only having two points, Bulgaria also progressed as one of the best third-placed teams.
It was the world champions versus the European champions in the second phase, Italy vs. France. Les Bleus, inspired by Juventus playmaker Michel Platini, qualified easily from a group containing the impressive USSR, Hungary and Canada. They were playing some of the best football seen at the tournament and Platini was at the heart of everything they did, pulling the strings just as he had done to lead the Bianconeri to 1986 Serie A title.