From shoe salesman to a Coach who pieced together one of this century’s greatest club sides, Arrigo Sacchi was appointed national team coach in 1991. During a six year tenure with the Azzurri, his diligent tactical awareness almost brought him the game’s biggest prize. An honourable man, hard but fair, Sacchi remains one of the most iconic figures of Italian football.
In 1987, Milan, one of the world’s most famous football clubs, were at a crossroads, it’s supporters starved of success. Indeed the Rossoneri had not won a Scudetto since 1973. New owner Silvio Berlusconi opted for a Coach who had been receiving rave reviews for his work at provincial club Parma. Sacchi had resurrected a club that was floundering in the lower reaches of Italian football and took them into Serie B in 1987, just two years after taking over. The Emilia-Romagna born Tactician took the hot seat at Milanello and immediately set about reconstructing a squad good enough to beat Europe’s best. Holland provided the ammunition he needed, promptly taking Berlusconi’s cheque book with him to sign Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Employing a five man defence with Franco Baresi acting as the sweeper, he placed van Basten in attack as a lone striker with support just behind from Gullit. The system worked like a dream and Milan captured the title in Sacchi’s first season in charge. The next two campaigns brought back-to-back European Cup wins, culminating in 1989 with a 4-0 destruction of Steaua Bucharest in the Camp Nou in Barcelona. Sacchi was hot property and in 1991 he was offered the position of National Team Coach a position he could not turn down.
When Sacchi arrived his country had failed to make it to the European Championships of 1992 in Sweden, a scenario that would have been unthinkable a year earlier as the Azzurri had come so close to a World Cup final on home soil. Azeglio Vicini vacated his position and Sacchi aimed to get his country to the USA for the World Cup of 1994. He achieved this emphatically as Italy topped their qualifying group, suffering just one defeat away to Switzerland. The new look Azzurri had booked their place at football’s top table. The final 22-man squad chosen for the finals would be captained by the tried and trusted Franco Baresi. At 34-years-old this would be his last major tournament, but he was an inspiration to those around him. He would be joined in defence by club mates Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassotti and the Parma trio of Luigi Apolloni, Antonio Benarrivo and Lorenzo Minotti. Roberto Mussi from Torino completed the rearguard. In midfield a Milan duo of Demetrio Albertini and Roberto Donadoni were accompanied by Dino Baggio and Antonio Conte from Juventus, Nicola Berti from Inter Milan and Alberigo Evani from Sampdoria. In attack was the mercurial Roberto Baggio, alongside him Parma’s Gianfranco Zola, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Giuseppe Signori from Lazio and Daniele Massaro from Milan. Between the posts was the giant Gianluca Pagliuca from Sampdoria, in reserve was Lazio’s Luca Marchegiani and Luca Bucci from Parma.
The Italians were drawn in a group with the Republic of Ireland, Mexico and Norway and were hot favourites to progress. Things started disastrously for Sacchi, in their opening group game against the Irish, the Azzurri found themselves 0-1 down in only 11 minutes, an entire Milan back line looked like strangers to one another as Ray Houghton scored. Albertini, usually so good starting attacks from just in front of his defence, was ineffective as was Roberto Baggio, who was placed in attack alongside Signori. As the final whistle blew, an opening match defeat was food for thought for Sacchi and they went into the second match against Norway knowing that a win was essential to keep their World Cup hopes alive. This time Casiraghi was paired in attack with Signori to free up Roberto Baggio so he could influence the game behind the strikers. After 22 minutes, Sacchi’s world seemed to be crumbling around him as goalkeeper Pagliuca was sent-off for handling the ball outside of his area. Roberto Baggio was sacrificed as Luca Marchegiani took his place in goal. Just after half time, his inspirational captain Baresi took a knock and had to be substituted, Luigi Apollini taking his place. In the face of adversity Italy still looked dangerous and on 69 minutes, Dino Baggio scored a crucial goal that gave his country a valuable win.
The group was still undecided as Italy went into their final match against Mexico. Baresi was still recovering so Apolloni stayed in the back four and Casiraghi and Signori remained as the two strikers with Roberto Baggio tucked in behind. Again Italy struggled in the first half and after a goalless first 45 minutes, Sacchi replaced Casiraghi with Daniele Massaro for the second half. It seemed an absolute masterstroke as within three minutes of the restart, Massaro put the Azzurri in front. But within nine minutes the Mexicans were level through Marcelino Bernal. The game ended 1-1 whilst the other match had finished in a goalless draw. All four teams finished with four points and the group went down to head to head. Luckily, Italy’s solitary win over Norway had been enough to take them into the knockout phase on goals scored and Sacchi knew a vast improvement was needed to progress further.
In the last 16 Italy would play Nigeria, a side who had topped their group. Sacchi kept faith with Marchegiani in goal but brought in Antonio Benarrivo as Baresi was named as a substitute. Massaro partnered Signori up front. After 25 minutes, Nigeria went in front and that is how it remained until half-time. Nicole Berti made way for the more offensive Dino Baggio in the second half but still the Azzurri could not find a way through. On 88 minutes, with the game seemingly lost, Roberto Baggio forced the equaliser – Italy was back from the dead. In extra time Baggio was again the hero slotting home a penalty on the 100 minute mark. Somehow, Italy progressed to the quarter finals to face Spain. Conscious of their poor starts to matches, Sacchi went into this game playing a 4-5-1 formation, Pagliuca was back in goal. The Coach packed his midfield to nullify Spanish sorties into the Italian half and it seemed to be working when on 25 minutes Dino Baggio gave Italy the lead only to see it cancelled out after the interval by Caminero. When Signori was introduced for Albertini, Italy were far more offensive and miraculously, three minutes from time Roberto Baggio again saved his country with his third goal of the tournament. Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) was keeping Sacchi’s hopes alive, only the Bulgarians were standing between Italy and their first World Cup final since 1982. Roberto Baggio fired the Azzurri ahead with two exquisite strikes on 20 and 25 minutes. A Hristo Stoichkov penalty pulled a goal back for the Bulgarians but Italy hung on to claim an unlikely place in the World Cup final.
It was a repeat of the 1970 final, this Brazil team certainly lacked the flair of 24 years earlier but they were strong favourites. Sacchi went with Massaro as his lone striker and captain fantastic Franco Baresi returned. The game as a whole was totally unforgettable, after 120 minutes the sides could not be separated. In the penalty shootout, Baresi of all people missed as Brazil took the ascendancy. It came down to Roberto Baggio to keep the Azzurri’s hopes alive. In one of the most iconic images of the decade, Baggio’s kick sailed over the crossbar as the great man just stood, his eyes transfixed to the floor, it was unfitting that Baggio’s tournament should end so cruelly. Sacchi’s dream had died in the heat of Los Angeles.
The Italian FA kept faith with Sacchi despite some negative reaction to his tactics in the World Cup. In 1996 he took his country, minus Roberto Baggio, to England for the European Championships. The tournament was an unmitigated disaster for the Azzurri, after an opening group game win over Russia, thanks to two goals from a rejuvenated Casiraghi, they were beaten in the second match by a Pavel Nedvěd inspired Czech Republic. In a must win final game against the Germans, Gianfranco Zola missed a penalty as the game finished goalless. It was the end of the tournament for the Italians and it was the end of the Sacchi era.
A brief, unsuccessful return to Milan was then followed by a stint at Spanish giants Atlético Madrid, where he won the Copa del Rey. A return to the peninsula in 2001 saw Sacchi back at the helm in Parma, were he battled against ever increasing club debts. In 2004 he returned to Spain as Director of Football at Real Madrid, but after a year he stood down. He remains a forthright spokesman in the game with a weekly column in Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, along with a regular spot on Controcampo, a Serie A highlights show on Italian TV. His five years in charge of the national team could be described as indifferent, he was a strategist absorbed in the finer arts of the game. Unfortunately, his players on too many occasions let him down, and it will be his wonderful Milan side of the late 80’s, and not his Azzurri tenure, that Sacchi will be best remembered for.