‘Thus in the sun evanishes the snow’ says Dante in the last Canto of the Divine Comedy to describe how memory is slowly brushed away from the mind. The faces of players staring at us from the 1930s, captured in a grainy black and white, bear witness to the statement. The tale of the confrontation between Italy and Brazil, the two most successful nations in the history of football, stretches back to dates which are, in terms of this sport, almost mythological. Their first match took place in June of 1938. They have met since then in five official World Cup matches, with two victories for Italy and three for Brazil, the latest of which decided on penalties after a goalless draw.
Italy – Brazil is a classic of world football, and rightfully so. Their clash is effortlessly epic, if only because the two teams are traditionally seen as possessing the best defence and the best offence in the globe, so that the conflict is primal and easy to understand. Yet this dialectic, while seductive in its own right, only partially corresponds to the truth. Italy – Brazil is a game layered with more subtle meaning and sagas, and many of these have been erased by time ‘like snow evanishing in the sun.’
Snap back to 1938. How many non-Italian fans of the game recognise the name of Giuseppe Meazza? Yet that same name was enough to strike fear in the hearts of the Brazilians when the two teams met in the World Cup semi-finals back then, much like the name Pelè would later do for the Italians in 1970. For the record, the achievements of Giuseppe Meazza eclipse those of any contemporary Italian player, with the conquest of two World Cups in a row (1934 and 1938) and the title of the second most prolific Italian goal-scorer in the history of Serie A.
When the first match between Italy and Brazil was played, the roles between the two teams were reversed. Back then, Italy were the undisputed kings of football, the holding world champions and unrivalled in terms of culture and quality. Alongside Meazza, who was probably the greatest Italian player of all time, played Silvio Piola – another legend whose name was blanked by time, and the only Italian to have scored more than Meazza, with a monstrous record of 274 goals. Together, Meazza and Piola proved an irresistible offensive force to the team which would later boast the greatest attacking game of all time. The conflict which tradition portrays as the elemental best offence versus best defence has origins in a scenario which was actually the reverse of what we now believe to be the foundational truth. The final score was 2-1 to the Azzurri, who then went on to win the final. Brazil, and their star Da Silva Leonidas (the ‘black diamond’), were in shock. They would not cross swords with Italy again for 32 years.
Mexico 1970. The stadium holds 107,000 spectators for the second clash between the two teams, but the situation by now has changed. Brazil has won the title twice already under a man whose name eclipses even that of Meazza – Edison Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pelè. The game is a World Cup final, but it holds an additional festoon of meaning because the nations are competing for the Rimet Cup – a trophy prepared forty years before for the first nation in the world to conquer three World Cups. No-one has won it so far. The winner of this final will take the Rimet Cup home and claim the crown as emperors of football.
History spelled Brazil then, and it was only fair. Gianni Brera, Italy’s late and most influential sports journalist, wrote ‘We take our hats off before Brazil; they utterly deserve the title of world champions and the Rimet Cup.’ The victory of the Brazilians, for him, was a matter of justice. Beyond Pelè, who claimed his third and last World Cup that year, the Verdeoro boasted Jairzinho, who ended up as top goal-scorer of the tournament, Tostao, one of the best midfielders in history, and Carlos Alberto, a full-back whose monumental final shot sealed the game at 4-1 and spelled an omen for his similarly named successor, Roberto Carlos. Italy had some very impressive names themselves – forward Gigi Riva (‘rombo di tuono,’ the roll of thunder), a young and woefully benched Gianni Rivera, and right back Giacinto Facchetti, who deserves a place alongside Meazza as one of the greatest Italian players of all time. If fullbacks today are more than just central defenders playing on the sides, we owe it partly to this man’s revolutionary interpretation of the role.
Even as the result was by far the most humbling out of the five games for the Italians, it deserves to be remembered by them above any other. Mexico 1970 stands as the greatest World Cup tournament ever played by Italy, over and beyond the ones which they actually won. We say this not only because it includes the semi-final 4-3 victory against Germany which endures as the most astonishing game ever played by Italy (the Germans dubbed it ‘the game of the century,’ and they didn’t even win it), but because that tournament draws a narrative of incredible synthetic value. In it lies a metaphor for the history of Italian football in its first eighty years. Following a slow start, Italy defeats Germany after an infinite struggle to take a righteous – though unambiguous – second place behind Brazil as most powerful nation in the sport. The game took place in 1970 – the exact half-way line between the first World Cup and the one about to take place. History not only repeats itself – it expands and contracts, it condenses itself, and in its smallest unit expresses its largest whole. In a sense, watching that World Cup means watching the eighty years of Azzurri football history held together in the space of six matches. No tournament can communicate more.
That being said, most Italians will of course remember 1982 and not 1970 as the greatest World Cup. There is a folkloristic sense behind that. Italy and Brazil had met again in 1978 for an insipid third place (the game was won 2-1 by the Brazilians), but the quarter-finals clash in 1982 has become the stuff of legend. Back then, quarter-final games kept track of results in the group stage, and Italy had only just passed (two draws and one incredible victory against Argentina), while Brazil had stormed through their company. This meant that if the two teams drew, the Verdeoro would go through. Furthermore the South American line-up, from Socrates and Zico to Falcao, was a team to end all teams. Italy, for their own part, had failed to defeat Cameroon and Peru and were so paranoid that they had cut off communications with the press. David and Goliath does not come close – at least David had a sling.
Yet one of the most beautiful pages in the history of Italian football was written that 5th of July as the Azzurri went on to defeat Brazil by 3-2 after the tightest and most emotional game in the tournament. Paolo Rossi, the forward who had failed to find the net till then, bagged a hat-trick, and that time the old adage about defence being the Brazilian Achilles’ heel proved utterly true. Italy went on to defeat Poland in the semis and Germany in the finals, and legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff lifted the cup in his enormous gloved hands.
After that, there was one last encounter between the two teams, and it took place in 1994. It was, almost too fittingly, a World Cup final. It was also a classic case of history repeating itself – almost a quarter of a century after that seminal 1970 final, the two nations once again met for world supremacy. Both teams had three World Cups to their names, and their tournament record stated two victories and two defeats against each other. It was time to tip the balance again.
History repeated itself all the way to the end, but the result this time was far less marked. Under the searing skies of the United States, the two teams wore each other to rags to a dreary 0-0 result – the only draw, and to date the only truly ugly match between these two teams. Romario, the greatest Brazilian of the 1990s (alongside Ronaldo), failed to break through the best Italian defensive duo of all time – Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. On the other side of the pitch played a towering character in Italian football – Roberto Baggio, whose luminous figure had blazed through the knock-out stages of the tournament but whose final performance was stinted by an injury picked up just before the final. He was a shadow on the field, and when the last Italian penalty came on, the Divin Codino positioned a ball which was the rolled up hopes of all the Italian nation. Watching him as he kicked it far away into nothingness was a heartbreak hard to forget. Brazilian midfielder Dunga, the current Verdeoro Coach, walked up for his turn and did not miss. Ate logo, Italy, the kings are kings again.
How old is the World Cup? Eighty years. The Italy – Brazil rivalry covers seventy-two of those. There are several nations who may view a match against Italy to be special – France and the ever-bitter Spain, for instance. But the rivalry with France is barely ten years old, and as for Spain, their victory in Euro 2008 was the first in almost a century of football. There can be only two true rivals for the Azzurri in Italian history – one is Germany, and the other is Brazil. All things time draws from darkness and then buries from light, wrote the Greeks. Meazza, Pelè, Socrates, Rivera – they are no more distant from us than Romario and Baggio. The road of the past unfolds in the living, and the game comes alive in Italy-Brazil. The Twentieth Century saw the Verdeoro come out on top. The Twenty-First Century has started with one victory for each. These two nations have closed the page over nothing but their prologue. They have a history to write.