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.
Italy followed up their victory over Cameroon with win against Austria although Alessandro Nesta saw only two minutes of action before damaging knee ligaments which ruled him out for the tournament. Vieri nodded in Del Piero’s curling free-kick, but Austria’s uncanny track record of scoring only in stoppage time made it clear that this would not be enough. Happily, even as a substitute, Baggio made his mark, combining well with Filippo Inzaghi to put the result beyond doubt.
“I softened them up and he gave the knock-out punch,” smiled Del Piero. The Press clamoured around Cesare Maldini. Will we see Baggio, Del Piero and Vieri? “Absolutely not.” Pinturicchio got the nod in the second round against Norway and probably wished he hadn’t. Vieri had one chance against the most negative side in the competition and took it beautifully, an angled drive into the far corner. Del Piero squandered three gilt-edged opportunities that he would have tucked away blindfolded a month before. The injury may have gone, but this was not the man widely recognised as the best player in the world. His failure would have cost them the match but for Gianluca Pagliuca’s heroics from Tore Andre Flo’s lone effort.
Italy weren’t inspiring, but they were through to the quarter-finals against France. The home side had been severely tested by Paraguay and resorted to Laurent Blanc’s Golden Goal to qualify. After weeks of criticism and nail-biting finishes against poor opposition, this was the moment in which Italy would show what they could do. Baggio-Del Piero fever swept the nation and everyone, from the Prime Minister to Sophia Loren, was asked their opinion on this burning issue. Maldini tried the trident attack in training: “At last, the team all of Italy wants!” covered the front pages.
“Our fitness Coach had prepared us to hit peak form on July 3,” explained Del Piero. “I just know this will be my turning point.” Paolo Rossi did not score for the first four games in 1982, and we were all reminded of that coincidence in the run-up to Alex’s fifth match. “All he needs is a goal to break the ice,” advised Baggio, “and Alessandro will be the best in the tournament.”
The Press begged: “Even if we go out now, let us do it with our heads held high. Give them everything you’ve got.” Another headline ordered: “Azzurri, Attack!” Cesarone had other plans. France played, Italy thought only of stopping them. “Italy had maybe the best strikers in the tournament,” admitted Zinedine Zidane, “but didn’t know how to use them. You can’t have Del Piero and Vieri on the field and not play for them. You cannot keep Inzaghi and Enrico Chiesa on the bench when you need to score.”
Man-marking Zidane with left-back Gianluca Pessotto failed to stop the Frenchman but left the Azzurri a man down in midfield. Pagliuca only had two saves to make early on, Fabio Cannavaro saw to the rest. The few times the ball did find its way into the other half Del Piero would give it away. It’s almost as if he could hear the world muttering: “Baggio would have done better.” It’s no coincidence that when the veteran finally took to the field Italy evened out the pressure and for a moment during extra time it looked as if his Golden Goal had sealed qualification. The ball beat Fabien Barthez and squeezed inches wide of the far post.
‘Fort Italy’ had held out for 120 minutes. We could understand a team wanting to go to penalties if they had a good track record on shoot-outs, but for a side that had gone out of the last two tournaments in this manner smacked of undue optimism. Baggio and Zidane scored theirs without problems before Pagliuca blocked Bixente Lizarazu’s effort. “At that moment,” confessed Cesarone, “I thought if Demetrio Albertini scores, we’ll win the World Cup. Getting past France would have given us that boost and the injured players would get back to full fitness.” Albertini’s penalty was saved.
The decisive kick was down to Di Biagio. Like Baggio in ‘94, one of the best players of the campaign will be remembered for a penalty miss. “I have played in three World Cups and lost just once to the Republic of Ireland yet I have nothing to show for it,” noted Baggio.
“It’s the third time this has happened to me,” was Paolo Maldini’s bitter tirade. “Right now I feel like giving up.” His father, however, refused to back down. “We are undefeated and beaten only by a crossbar. I am proud of this team that battled until the last drop of sweat left their body. We could have played for days and France would never have scored.”
That may well be true, but the overall consensus back home was that justice was served. “That penalty shoot-out is used as a fig leaf to cover our tactical and midfield modesty,” opined Gazzetta’s Candido Cannavo. “This was a team packed with great players, but we made football an ugly sport.”