With a trademark pipe in his mouth, Enzo Bearzot was locked in a game of Scopa on the plane home from Spain in 1982. The Italian card game was being contested between the Coach who had just won the World Cup, iconic goalkeeper Dino Zoff, Franco Causio and Sandro Pertini, the President of Italy. Next to the cards on the table was the Fifa World Cup trophy.
This image is one of the most legendary in the history of Italian football. It combined one of the sport’s best ever goalkeepers, the President of the country, and the darling of Italy at the time. Nicknamed “Il Vecio” (The Old Man) in his later years, Bearzot outshone the others in the picture, not just because of the charisma which bred his popularity, but also because he had just defied expectations to win Italy’s third World Cup.
When he passed away early on Tuesday morning at the age of 83, it wasn’t just football supporters in Italy who stood still. Bearzot had an impact on everybody in the country due to the way his achievements as manager of their national team brought glory to Italian shores. Italy has always been a country that has created top class managers – Vittorio Pozzo before him, and the likes of Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi in the modern day. However, Bearzot was in a class of his own as a manager and as a person.
His career as a footballer was modest and gave no indications of the inspirational figure he would become from the dugout. He was a defender who played in Serie A for 15 years, in two spells each with Inter and Torino, either side of a period with Catania. He managed just one international cap before bringing the curtain down on a low-key career in 1964.
Bearzot immediately became assistant Coach at Torino, before stepping up to his first role as manager with Prato in Serie C. He quickly moved on to working for the Italian Football Federation, where he coached the under-23 team, and then landed a job as the assistant Coach to the full national side. In this role he experienced his first World Cup, in 1974, but there were still no clues as to what he would one day achieve.
Bearzot took over in 1977 as Italy Coach. Three years later his team flopped at the European Championships they hosted, and the Italian media were on his back. In 1982, he was due to lead Italy into Spain for the World Cup and frankly, no one gave the Azzurri a chance.
For all his charm, Bearzot was equally stubborn. He stuck to the players that he trusted despite their current form, and this included Juventus striker Paolo Rossi, who had completed a two-year ban for a betting scandal just two months previous to the World Cup itself. Rossi was selected, much to the media’s protestations, and the nation was seemingly awaiting Bearzot’s team to return home prematurely from Spain.
After three draws in the group stage this prediction seemed accurate. They scraped through on goal difference and Rossi had been hopeless. Bearzot, in what could be labelled as the defining decision of his career, implemented a “silenzio stampa” – a press silence which isolated his team from the media who were baying for their blood.
The Azzurri responded immediately after a few days without interruption or criticism, beating Argentina in the second round. Then came Brazil, the tournament favourites. The proceeding match has been described as one of the best in World Cup history as Italy stunningly shocked the Brazilians 3-2, with Rossi turning from zero to hero to net a hat-trick. Bearzot’s faith in the controversial striker had been rewarded.
Rossi knocked two more past Poland in the semi-finals and scored Italy’s first in the final as they defeated West Germany. The abiding moment from the 1982 World Cup final will always be Marco Tardelli’s screaming celebration as he scored, but none of these historic moments would have been possible without the faith Bearzot placed upon his players against the wishes of many people back home in Italy.
“For me, football should be played with two wingers, a centre forward and a playmaker,” said the mastermind of Italy’s third World Cup.
“That’s the way I see the game. I select my players and then I let them play the game, without trying to impose tactical plans on them. You can’t tell Maradona, ‘Play the way I tell you.’ You have to leave him free to express himself. The rest will take care of itself.”
His attacking football set the standards for future Italian clubs and national teams, taking them away from the Catenaccio they are still sometimes unfairly defined by. Bearzot was a visionary who let his relaxed personality influence his teams rather than strict tactics. His impact upon the heroes of 1982 has now been vocalised by Rossi upon his sad passing.
“He was like a father to me,” said Rossi on Tuesday morning when news of Bearzot’s death had broken.
“I owe everything to him, he was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century for Italy.”
No doubt in the coming days countless messages from professionals and veterans will illustrate how Bearzot is seen as one of the greatest managers of all time. For now, the statement from the FICG sums up all our feelings about him:
“Goodbye Old Man, we will miss your wisdom.”