Saturday, April 27, 2013

Italy arrived in Argentina with modest expectations. The team was not seen as favourite and even at home the expectations were modest. May be an unique situation, but the slump starting with the grand fiasco in 1974 was long and painful. And nothing suggested the crisis was over yet – the team was just lucky to qualify to the finals, thanks to better goal difference. Enzo Bearzot was not yet the revered master coach, but controversial choice vulnerable to criticism: after all, his record was funny one – he never coached a professional club, trained mostly youth teams and was assistant to Feruccio Valcareggi. The 1974 failure was a heavy burden, for Bearzot was part of it.

Yet, Bearzot was comfortable – Italian coaches normally exist in particularly stressful situation and near peril under the combined close scrutiny of both press and general public, both easily inflamed and merciless. This time the enemy almost gave up, deeming both coach and team hopeless, which in turn benefited Bearzot's work.

Which was not easy at all, for comfort is very relative term in Italian football and lack of expectations does not mean lack of critical interest, ready to explode. Perhaps Bearzot fooled his dangerous compatriots by not proclaiming himself a reformer. On the surface, he seemingly continued the familiar Italian approach to football: fortify the defense, use experienced players, and don't forget the beloved superstars. At least never say publicly the megastars are out. Bearzot's reforms were somewhat never announced, changes were made gradually and quietly, and what really happened was discovered much later. Bearzot had not much of a choice in the matter, though – rebuilding the national team happened in time of general crisis of Italian football and his options were limited. His own vision was based on experience, not on radical and risky gambles with youth.

This squad perhaps illustrates best Bearzot's approach: it is almost 50% lingering oldtimers and 50% his own stars. Bearzot experimented with such teams almost to the beginning of the World Cup, but at the crucial moment of announcing the definite team list the first row above was out and the second row was the core of his real team. One thing obviously clear was that he based his team on Juventus – not only the strongest Italian team at the time, but more importantly the only one embracing modern developments of the game. The only team playing total football – in its Italian version, of course. Juventus suited Bearzot perfectly – it was vastly experienced squad, a mixture of old wolves and players about 25 years old, playing together for some years already. Both press and fans had no objections to Juventus players – they dominated the Italian league and just won the UEFA Cup. An easy excuse for 'forgetting' the likes of Savoldi and legends like Facchetti (the former – overrated; the latter – too old). In contrast to Mennotti, whose team practically had no survivors from 1974, Bearzot's Italy looked like smooth continuation – keeping experienced veterans and replacing here and there those nearing retirement anyway. Risky choices were seen as mere reserves, something plausible in terms of the future of the team, but it was understood that the stars will play – and all current stars were selected.
1 GK Dino Zoff 28 Feb 1942 Juventus

2 DF Mauro Bellugi 07 Feb 1950 Bologna

3 DF Antonio Cabrini 08 Oct 1957 Juventus

4 DF Antonello Cuccureddu 04 Oct 1949 Juventus

5 DF Claudio Gentile 27 Sep 1953 Juventus

6 DF Aldo Maldera 14 Oct 1953 AC Milan

7 DF Lionello Manfredonia 27 Nov 1956 Lazio

8 DF Gaetano Scirea 25 May 1953 Juventus

9 MD Giancarlo Antognoni 01 Apr 1954 AC Fiorentina

10 MD Romeo Benetti 20 Oct 1945 Juventus

11 MD Eraldo Pecci 12 Apr 1955 AC Torino

12 GK Paolo Conti 01 Apr 1950 AS Roma

13 MD Patrizio Sala 16 Jun 1955 AC Torino

14 MD Marco Tardelli 24 Sep 1954 Juventus

15 MD Renato Zaccarelli 18 Jan 1951 AC Torino

16 MD Franco Causio 01 Feb 1949 Juventus

17 MD Claudio Sala 08 Sep 1947 AC Torino

18 FW Roberto Bettega 27 Dec 1950 Juventus

19 FW Francesco Graziani 12 Dec 1952 AC Torino

20 FW Paolino Pulici 27 Apr 1950 AC Torino

21 FW Paolo Rossi 23 Sep 1956 Vicenza

22 GK Ivano Bordon 13 Apr 1951 Internazionale

Five players remained from 1974 at the end, but they were key players. Juventus provided the bulk – 9 players, practically all of them starters. The other strong club of the time – Torino – was represented by 6. It made sense – the second best team provided capable reserves, as becoming of second-best. Since Juventus was the base team, no objections to young brooms like Cabrini were readily available. The squad appeared well balanced – plenty of experience, yet not too old, plus a bunch of young feet not really expected to play, except Antognoni. He was already becoming a superstar and with him Italy was getting influential creative playmaker, a nice and important addition to the well-oiled Juventus' machine. Since nobody saw Italy as a favourite, objections of Bearzot's choices were few. Italy went to Argentina as an underdog, perhaps capable of reaching the second stage, but no more than that.

Italy in Argentina – it must be said right now: the World Cup took place in June, which is in the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Hence, the heavy training gear and terrible pitches. Grass was coming off during warm ups already. The Italians did not seem to mind the conditions – they were not expected to win anyway and therefore were uncharacteristically modest.