Italy were expected to go far in the Far East in 2002, but as Anthony Alborino and Livio Caferoglu write, were only left frustrated with an early exit.
The World Cup in Japan and South Korea will always be a case of ‘what could have been’ for Italy. Now regarded as one of the best national squads never to have been crowned champions on the global stage, it was the acrimonious manner of their exit from the tournament which many Azzurri fans will never forget.
The 2002 edition marked a series of firsts. It was the first time that two countries would be co-hosting the tournament. It was the first time that the World Cup would be staged in Asia. It was also the first time that so many elite nations – namely France, Portugal and Argentina – tripped up at the first hurdle.
The preceding Serie A season was arguably the most exciting in years, with Juventus, Roma and Inter all vying for the League title until the very last day. There was also the ‘miracle’ of Chievo’s maiden voyage in the top flight, but the sad demise of Fiorentina, one of the peninsula’s most decorated clubs, which saw the Viola demoted to the fourth tier due to financial irregularities.
However, a series of passport, match-fixing and doping scandals rocked the integrity of the Italian game. What the country needed was a strong head to guide the national team to glory, and in Giovanni Trapattoni, their most successful Coach, and a blend of youth and experience to call upon, they looked to have got the appointment right.
A 2-2 draw with Hungary in their first qualifier was not the start that Italy fans were expecting, fresh from their Euro 2000 heartbreak under Dino Zoff, but six wins in their next seven fixtures secured an easy passage into the finals. Looking like a well-drilled winning machine under the ex-Juventus and Bayern Munich boss, Italy could dare to dream again.
Trapattoni kept faith with much of the squad that he inherited during qualification, but he was not afraid to reward personnel on the grounds of their form, as seen in the cases of Cristiano Doni and Cristiano Zanetti. Despite his continued renaissance at Brescia, another PR campaign to send legendary attacker Roberto Baggio to the Far East proved futile.
Italy opened their assault on Group G against Ecuador on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and there would be no excuses for not performing against less-esteemed opposition, even if the Azzurri had failed to win four of their last five opening games at World Cups.
With the South American debutants hoping to impress in front of the 31,000-strong crowd, they appeared at ease on the ball in their first encounter on the world stage, and they put in some strong challenges in an attempt to stamp their mark on the game.
However, despite their best endeavours, Gianluigi Buffon was rarely troubled in the Italy goal, and the Italians soon grabbed the match by the throat, with a breakthrough, which came after just seven minutes.
Francesco Totti and Christian Vieri combined wonderfully to fire the men in blue into the lead, as the Inter striker rocketed in the Roma forward’s cut-back from 14 yards. Coach Trapattoni must have felt vindicated for choosing to field the pair up top, as the decision had immediately paid dividends.
It was to go from bad to worse for the Ecuadorians before the half-time whistle, as they were punished for losing the ball cheaply in their own half – Luigi Di Biagio picked up possession and sent it up field to Vieri, who rode Ivan Hurtado’s challenge and tried to slide the ball under Jose Cevallos. The goalkeeper managed to prevent the ball from going in, but Bobo reacted quickly to tap the ball into an empty net and double his side’s advantage, as well as his tally for the evening.
After 27 minutes, it was beginning to look as though the game was already won, though Ecuador, who only managed their first shot on target in the 40th minute, came out after the second period determined to make amends, and they moved forward with intent.
The Azzurri may have lowered the tempo, yet it was them who were creating the best chances, with Doni striking the crossbar, and man of the match Vieri drawing a good save from Cevallos.
Buffon then made an excellent stop from Agustin Delgado late on to keep his clean sheet intact, and Italy went on to claim three points, as they enjoyed the perfect start to their World Cup adventure.
The Italians then travelled south to face Croatia five days later, and while they were brimming with confidence following their momentous opening game, their opponents were smarting from a 1-0 defeat suffered against Mexico in Niigata.
Expectations were high that passage through to the second round would be secured with a win, but any lingering thoughts that Trapattoni’s men had of putting their feet up for their final group game were extinguished by two late quick-fire goals from the Croats.
In the 50th minute, Vieri’s towering header had netted him his eighth goal in seven World Cup matches, to further stake his claim to the Golden Boot award, and put his team firmly in the driving seat. Instead of searching for the second goal, however, Italy proceeded to shut up shop.
It was a decision which horribly backfired on them. Ivica Olic equalised from close range for Croatia, with his compatriot Milan Rapaic hitting a deflected winner just three minutes later. Having failed to hit the heights of their previous match, La Nazionale were made to pay for some lax defending, although they could feel justifiably aggrieved that they weren’t able to at least salvage a point.
Two controversial disallowed goals made all the headlines in Italy – the first was ruled offside, as Vieri ran through to head in from close range, despite being level with the last man. The second was somewhat more obvious, as substitute Filippo Inzaghi was caught shirt-pulling moments before a free-kick found its way over the line.