While 2006 is fresher in memory and many of us weren’t even born then, the 1982 World Cup squad will always remain the pinnacle of football for Italy.
It was the image that adorned a million Italian restaurants around the world, the poster of the 1982 World Cup winning team. Even after the Azzurri lifted the trophy again in 2006 and many new Fabio Cannavaro posters were released holding the trophy aloft, many have also kept this 1982 photo on their walls. It had become the shrine to that wonderful summer in which Paolo Rossi, Marco Tardelli and Dino Zoff delighted global audiences and created what remain to this day the definitive images of what football can mean to people.
There is a recurring theme when the national team end up winning trophies, one that we also recognized at EURO 2020. They are never the favourites, there will often be some kind of domestic scandal or chaos in the squad build-up. isolate themselves and this only serves to strengthen their bond. In 2006 it was the Calciopoli trial that sent so many world champions to Serie B a few weeks after that glorious night in Berlin. In 1982 it was the Totonero betting scandal that erupted in 1980 and saw Paolo Rossi, among others, receive a three-year suspension, reduced to two on appeal.
This ruled him out of the 1980 European Championship and he did not return to action until April 1982, for the last two matches of the Serie A season for Juventus. Under the circumstances, it was considered sheer madness on the part of coach Enzo Bearzot to pick Rossi for the World Cup, a man who had only played two competitive matches in two years and still bore the taint of that match-fixing scandal.
Italy also tends to discover great talent in major tournaments, someone who rises from relative obscurity to legend and never gets close to those heights again in his career. Fabio Grosso in 2006. Totò Schillaci in 1990. But with Rossi he was the opposite of someone who became famous during the summer. He was already famous. When Roberto Pruzzo and Evaristo Beccalossi are left at home to carry a character like Rossi, it’s not so much Bearzot’s courage as a huge leap of faith off a cliff.
The national team really developed their underdog status with a poor start, drawing all three games in the first group stage and coming close to goal difference against Cameroon. The opening credits said it all: “No glory for Italy and, worse still, no hope”.
It set them on course for an incredibly tough second group stage against the favourites, but that’s when the miracles began. Diego Armando Maradona’s Argentina were reigning world champions, but while it’s easy to remember that match in which Claudio Gentile kicked El Pibe de Oro, it’s worth remembering that the Seleccion was as tough as the old school Azzurri. It was a battle, with Tardelli opening the scoring, then Brown Conti leaping in a save to fake goal-line goalkeeping and shooting wide for Antonio Cabrini who exploded over the roof of the net.
Brazil were in the stands to watch this match, knowing their samba style made them the clear favorites to dominate the tournament, and then overcame Argentina in a 3-1 masterclass. To this day, they are known as the best team never to win the World Cup, but that’s why it’s so important that Italy faced each other and beat them. There can be no arguments, no doubt.
Due to goal difference, the Azzurri had to beat Brazil to continue the competition. It seemed hopeless, but these are situations where Italian football tends to flourish, when there’s nothing to lose. “We all thought that after beating Argentina, Italy would be a walk in the park,” Oscar confessed several years later.
Up to this point Rossi had not scored a single goal, but Cabrini headed a cross at the far post just five minutes later. Zico and Socrates combined to score from a tight angle, but Rossi made the most of their ghostly arrogance behind defenders to steal a lazy pass and restore Italy’s lead. Collovati’s injury meant the introduction of the world’s oldest, 18-year-old moustachioed Beppe Bergomi. Paulo Roberto Falcao made it 2-2 from the edge of the box, a result which would have seen Brazil through, but once again Rossi came out of nowhere to deflect from a corner, completing a player’s first hat-trick. in front of the Selecao. In the final minute, 40-year-old Dino Zoff nearly extinguished a header with no Oscar on the line to seal the iconic 3-2 result.
Much like the 2006 semi-final against Germany, this match felt more like the final than the real decider. It was like a blessing, this knowledge that now they were surely unstoppable. Rossi scored two more goals against Poland and earned top scorer status in an eventual 3-1 victory over West Germany.
The most famous image of this tournament, however, was not Rossi, who after this World Cup in Spain would become Pablito forever, but Marco Tardelli. His face after scoring in the final is the one you would show any human being, even an alien from another planet, to describe what football means. Pure, pure, incredulous joy. It will be repeated by Fabio Grosso after yet another goal against Germany in injury time in 2006. It will take a while, but the Italians know that we will see this cry again one day at the World Cup.