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The FIFA World Cup has been the greatest spectacle on the planet, unifying the millions of fans who are bewitched by the beautiful game. A brainchild of the legendary Jules Rimet, the honours of hosting the inaugural WC was given to two time Olympic champions Uruguay in 1930; however, the tedious travel across the Atlantic resulted in only four European teams participating. Till date, there have been eight different countries that have been crowned world champions from the nineteen World Cups that have been held since 1930, Brazil have won it an astonishing five times, mainly due to their era under the influential Pele; Italy, with four titles, are the most successful European nation. The Azzurri have had a rollercoaster ride in the WC tournaments, hitting unprecedented heights and unimaginable lows in the last century.

Italy and the 1934 World Cup

Italy was chosen to host the second edition of the World cup in 1934, which was also the only instance where defending champions Uruguay opted out of a World Cup to defend their crown. The Azzurri squad was bolstered with talent, the architect being the great Giuseppe Meazza, the Nerazzuri legend. Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, took utmost care in dealing with the tournament; his pride and the fascist regime was at stake. He took the WC as an opportunity to expand his fascist regime and signify Italy’s dominance in Europe. The Coppa Del Duce (Duce being the fond nickname of Mussolini) was six times bigger than the Jules Rimet Trophy, and was the prize on offer to the winner of the WC. Vittorio Pozzo, the most experienced coach and an authoritarian of Italy, was selected to lead the Azzurri to world cup glory. The team was isolated from the media, and the players were trained in militaristic training camps. Pozzo had bonded the team together, which was visible on the field as Italy swept their opponents away with unfathomable ease. However, historians claim that Mussolini lent his hand in handpicking the referees. The late Josef Bican recollects one of the referees intercepting a pass for the Italians in the semi final against Austria. The Azzurri had conquered a Czechoslovakian side to the delight of Mussolini, but winning at home left a few question marks of how worthy the side actually was.

In 1938, World Cup hosts France offered a stiff challenge to the Azzurri’s title defence. Pozzo felt that he had something to prove, since a home WC win didn’t seem to satisfy him or the critics. Anti-fascist rallies were growing in Europe, and France was no exception. The quarter finals between France and Italy will be remembered for Mussolini’s dictatorship over the Azzurri team, when he ordered the players to wear black to provoke the anti-fascists. Pozzo and the Azzurri demolished the Hungarians in the finals. Despite the political overturns, the Azzurri victory away from home was all the sweeter, and Vittorio Pozzo thus became the only manager ever to defend his WC crown; no other manager shares this remarkable achievement. Mussolini’s association with the squad signified the dominance of his regime. Fascism was  eventually defeated by the World War II, and the confidence and self belief of the glorious 30’s were in tatters. After the hardships of the war, football could be celebrated by everyone, as it was a mark of regaining the lost pride and damaged hope. The Grande Torino, one of the greatest team that ever lived, was seen as a ray of hope to take Italy out of the misery of war to a third consecutive WC win in 1950. The Superga Air Disaster had destroyed this hope, killing the entire Torino squad which had been returning from a friendly with Benfica. Thus the limited resources and lack of quality players was also a contributing factor in Italy forging a new path with the tactic, Catennacio.

Sandro Mazzola, the son of the great Valentino Mazzola, the captain of the Grande Torino side, led the Nerrazuri into an era of National and Continental dominance, winning the European cup twice, using Catennacio as the primary weapon. But this never translated into the Azzurri squad, as they were humiliated by the North Koreans in the 1966 WC, which is seen as one of the lowest the Italian football has ever seen. The 1970 WC was the pinnacle of Catennacio, showing the world that even defending was a part of football which was equally important and equally effective as attacking; the tournament saw a star studded team, with Mazzola again leading the Azzurri, and Giani Rivera and Luigi Riva adding the attacking prowess upfront. The WC will broadly be remembered for the greatest WC match ever played, namely the semi final between the West Germans and Italy. A topsy-turvy game ended 4-3 in favour of Italy, with Riva and Rivera being the influential figures in this win, but the Italians were humbled by the glorious Brazil team in the final, losing their chance to regain the Jules Rimet trophy. However, the worst was yet to hit Italian Football.

Who can forget Gentile vs Maradona?

The Totonero scandal of 1980 had destroyed what was left from the remains of the war. There was a meteoric rise in the investment in football during the 1970’s, and along with the money came the desire to win at all costs. Corruption was hitting new heights, and it was difficult to find any player at any level who wouldn’t go along with it. One of the main sources of corruption was Totocalcio, and many clubs and more than thirty players were convicted for bribery. The biggest name entangled in the crime and corruption network was Paolo Rossi, one of Azzurri’s stars of the 1978 WC, who was banned for two years from all forms of the game. Optimism and faith hit new lows among the fans before the 1982 WC; despite his break from football, Enzo Bearzot called up the star striker for the WC squad. After a disastrous group stage performance, the Azzurri were not helped by the next stage fixtures with Brazil and Argentina. After false rumours about a strained relationship between Rossi and Cabrini, the players decided to blackout the press, and this united the team against the world. Bearzot had done a Pozzo by unifying the team to put out a fight every time they stepped on the field. Claudio Gentile did a wonderful job against the Argentinean and Brazilian stars, Maradona and Zico. Paolo Rossi silenced his critics and won the golden shoe. The final will be remembered for the greatest moment in football, the Tardelli scream, which is the pinnacle of ultimate joy. Italians were united again after this WC; the faith hope and the pre war belief had sprung back in the hearts of the Italians, which dramatically increased the standards and economy of Italy. Serie A became the best league in the world, with clubs like Juventus and Milan winning European cup titles during the period.

The following era of the Azzurri was haunted by penalty shootout failures. Maradona had appealed to the fans of Napoli to support his team rather than the Azzurri ahead of the semifinal clash, which led to mixed emotions among the fans gathered at the San Paulo; this ruse worked in favour of Argentina, who knocked out a nervous Italy out of their home WC on penalty shootouts. The divine pony tail, Roberto Baggio, had cast a shadow over the fans with his Buddhist beliefs, but all the lurking clouds were blown away by a performance beyond superlatives after the Nigeria round of 16 clash; Taffarel and Baggio were the architects of another penalty shootout misery for the Azzurri. Their woes didn’t end in the 1998 WC, as they were knocked out by Barthez’s France on a penalty shootout.

The Azzurri, over the last century, have conquered the unthinkable and also plunged to unimaginable depths. The enemy within will always haunt this great nation, but the faith that history has taught the people will push them and the Azzurri to new limits. Italy breathes a new life after every struggle that this magnificent football nation had regarding scandalous issues, thanks to the unifying force called football.

– Vikram Krishnaveti