Football Italia continues its look back at the Azzurri’s World Cup track record in the lead up to the 2002 Finals. Susy Campanale discovers that France ‘98 has some valuable lessons to teach Giovanni Trapattoni.
Following the doomed USA ‘94 Final and the hasty exit from Euro ‘96, the public almost disliked its Nazionale. Put off by Arrigo Sacchi’s strict tactics and disdain for flair, Cesare Maldini was a people person. “This is what we need,” screamed the Gazzetta dello Sport. “Bread and salami rather than pheasant.”
The biggest casualty of the Sacchi era was Roberto Baggio. Three seasons spent on various benches at big clubs and the Divine Ponytail was a has-been. Twelve months before the World Cup he had only three options - Bologna, Udinese or Japan.
“I am at Bologna to get first team football as this is my last chance to play in a World Cup. I will gladly sit on the bench as Alessandro Del Piero’s understudy. I’ll play in any position I have to.” An incessant PR campaign and his most prolific ever season with 22 goals saw Baggio earn his spot.
The whole Serie A season had been a battle between the two best players in the world - Del Piero and Ronaldo, Juventus and Inter, 21 goals to 14. “I’ve done well this year because I had no injuries,” said Del Piero. “For once I didn’t have to restart physiotherapy and training.” Halfway through the Champions’ League Final against Real Madrid, Del Piero picked up a thigh strain so Baggio took centre stage for the opening game against Chile.
As with most Italian campaigns it was a tough start, although you wouldn’t have thought so when Baggio provided a delightful assist for Christian Vieri to open the scoring after just 10 minutes. The Italy midfield - above all else the disastrous Demetrio Albertini - was bossed without mercy by the South Americans and future Lazio star Marcelo Salas’ double paved the way for a shock defeat. The Azzurri were almost resigned to their fate when five minutes from time Baggio’s cross made contact with Ronaldo Fuentes’ arm. Would he take a decisive penalty four years on from Pasadena? “I was willing to take the kick. I didn’t know where it would go…”
An entire nation breathed a collective sigh of relief as the ball slipped between ‘keeper and upright. “Baggio saves Italy!” were the headlines and rightly so, the Divine Ponytail was back in the hearts and minds of the people, becoming the first Italian ever to score in three different Finals. Having faced one season-long battle with Ronaldo, Del Piero now had a rival much closer to home.
While the fans and Press mused over who wore the No 10 shirt in that household, two stars were born against Cameroon. It was clear from the first match that changes had to be made in midfield and the determination of Gigi Di Biagio proved decisive. “Maldini took a big risk betting on me,” explained the then Roma player. “I wasn’t a member of the big clubs and it was my first international experience.”
He had been a substitute against Chile but just seven minutes into his first start, Di Biagio placed his bald head on another inch-perfect Baggio cross. “It was the most important goal of my life. My friends were in the stands and I rang home straight after the match to ask if my mother had it on video.”
Zdenek Zeman’s disciple brought that extra grit into the side and the Azzurri certainly needed it when Raymond Kalla’s vicious tackle left blood and stud marks all along his thigh. “For a moment I really thought my World Cup was finished. The worst part was the Cameroon players insulted me for the rest of the game, saying I had dived. I showed them the wound but they still weren’t convinced.”
Once again Italy suffered post-goal panic and lost control of the game, even against 10 men. While all eyes were poised on Del Piero’s World Cup debut, and a fine chip saved by Jacques Songo’o, Vieri popped up again with two late goals.