Highly criticised beforehand, USA ‘94 transpired to be one of the most colourful World Cups on record. Once again penalties proved fatal for the Azzurri as Peter Bourne recalls how Italy stuttered to the Final.
The awful penalty miss by Diana Ross at the opening ceremony of USA ‘94 proved to be a fitting omen for a tournament which was eventually decided by football’s Russian roulette. FIFA’s decision to award the competition to the States didn’t come without criticism. ‘How could football’s ruling body hand the tournament to a country which hadn’t even heard of the Beautiful Game?’ But the cynics were forced to eat their words after an entertaining competition played in front of record-breaking crowds.
Following their failure to even qualify for Euro ‘92, Italy replaced veteran Azeglio Vicini with Arrigo Sacchi, the very man who built the supreme Milan machine of the late 1980s and early 90s and at the same time was credited with revolutionising Italian football. Sacchi’s Italy reign began tentatively. The Azzurri endured a nervous qualification having drawn and then lost to Switzerland. A win over Portugal in Milan eventually proved enough for a team which was in transition following the disappointment of Italia ‘90.
The Azzurri were amongst the pre-tournament favourites perhaps more on reputation than ability. With a diverse and unpredictable climate it was expected that this would be quite an open competition which could signal the emergence of a new South American nation or offer a stronger African challenge. Predictably Argentina, Brazil and Holland were Italy’s biggest rivals.
Sacchi tried and tested dozens of players during qualification and eventually settled on a 22 which had a strong Milan element. With the presence of Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini, Roberto Donadoni and Daniele Massaro, Sacchi knew he had men he could rely on. Pre-tournament wins over Finland, Switzerland and Costa Rica set up Italy nicely.
Sacchi had been handed a kind group with two of his opponents - Eire and Norway - likely to suffer more under the conditions and a third, Mexico, short of any real stars. Italy opened against Eire at a packed Giants Stadium in New York. The venue could have hardly been more fitting with a huge Irish and, of course, Italian contingent. Against all the odds, Italy were to suffer their first Finals defeat since 1986 and only loss at the tournament in the last 15 years. Ray Houghton’s deft lob beat Gianluca Pagliuca to seal the surprise result. Italy tend to start major tournaments slowly but Sacchi’s side seemed to have suffered chronic jetlag.
Ireland could have doubled their lead and easily contained Sacchi’s confused tactics with his best striker Giuseppe Signori shoved out on the left wing to accommodate the arrival of Daniele Massaro at half time. The Italian Press were heavy on Sacchi blaming him for the toothless Baggio-Signori partnership. Their previous appearance together had seen Italy lose a humiliating practice match against a Fourth Division team.
That signalled the traditional Sacchi shake-up in time for the second match against a horribly negative Norway team. Tassotti, Donadoni and Alberigo Evani were all dropped. Italy started with Pierluigi Casiraghi in tandem with Baggio and Signori again out in isolation. Twenty-one minutes in and Italy must have feared the worst. Pagliuca raced out of his goal, handling the ball giving referee Hellmut Krug no alternative but to send him off. Sacchi’s managerial career hung on his next decision.
With Italy needing to win the game, star man Roberto Baggio was incredibly drawn off to accommodate reserve ‘keeper Luca Marchegiani. “We needed our fittest and strongest players,” Sacchi later justified. He would also lose his captain Franco Baresi, stretched off in that game and who would not appear until a cartilage operation cleared him to play in the Final.