The Azzurri went to West Germany in 1974 looking to build on the second-place finish in 1970. However, the tournament was not to be a repeat of the success of the previous World Cup as they were eliminated in the first round. The team was packed with ostensibly amazing attacking talent in the form of Gianni Rivera, Luigi Riva, Pietro Anastasi and Roberto Boninsegna. The defence left a bit to be desired as the only famous names were those of Giacinto Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnish – both of whom were on the wrong side of thirty and arguably past their peak. The Azzurri got eliminated in the very first round. However, this squad was far from awful, the main reason for this disaster can be traced back to a lack of cutting edge in front of the goal.
Italy were paired with Poland, Argentina and Haiti. The first game was against Haiti who were making their first appearance in the World Cup. Being the newcomers and coming from the lowest seeded pot, there were expected to be the whipping boys of the group. Indeed, the game started with Italy raining shots upon shots on Haiti’s goal. Goalkeeper Henry Francillon made some several top-class saves, yet the main reason behind the score remaining 0-0 at half-time was poor finishing by the Azzurri forwards. They created a large number of chances and on another day, would have scored several goals from the same. Just after half-time, Haiti shockingly took the lead through Emmanuel Sanon, thereby ending Dino Zoff’s incredible record of not having conceded for 1142 minutes in international games. This shook the Italians and they came back into the game with Rivera scoring few minutes later. Goals from Romeo Benetti and Anastasi gave the Italians a comfortable 3-1 victory, although the margin should have been much higher.
Having come from the third pot, Argentina were not heavyweights in this World Cup, although they did have a 20-year old rising star in the form of Mario Kempes. Italy were the clear favorites for this encounter in Stuttgart but they could manage only a draw. Rene Houseman scored a stunning volley from a pass by Carlos Babington to give Argentina the lead. Italy clawed their way back into the game thanks to an own goal by Roberto Perfumo. Midfielders Benetti and Fabio Capello worked hard in midfield and the introduction of Franco Causio in the second half injected some creativity into the Azzurri attack. However, they could not find the killer goal and the spoils were shared.
A draw against Poland would have been sufficient to guarantee a second round place. But the sizzling Poles raced to a two-goal lead by the end of first half through goals from Andrzej Szarmach and Kazimierz Deyna. In second half, the Azzurri laid siege on the Polish goal, creating several chances. They missed easy chances, forced a goal-line clearance and made goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski into making some top saves. The eventual goal from Capello came five minutes from time and it was too little, too late. Argentina won their game against Haiti by a 4-1 score and Italy crashed out of the tournament on inferior goal difference.