Cessna-born Azeglio Vicini has the ignominy of being relatively forgotten in the grand scheme of Italian football, despite having led the Nazionale to semi-finals in both major international football tournaments during his five-years as coach. These near misses and failure to qualify for the 1992 European Championships ultimately lead to the Italian Football Federation calling time on his tenure, with Arrigo Sacchi replacing him in preparation for USA ’94.
Vicini, who played nearly 250 times in the Italian top flight without pulling on the blue of the Azzuri, preened his coaching reputation with the Azzurrini between 1977 and 1986. It would be in the relative quiet of the Under 21 set-up that Vicini would lay the foundations for the team that he would bring through the ranks to the full national side. Under the watchful gaze of Vicini, the likes of Roberto Mancini, Gianluca Vialli, Walter Zenga, Roberto Donadoni and Giuseppe Gianni would cut their teeth in the world of international football. However, the final act in Vicini’s reign at the helm of the Azzurrini would be symptomatic of his time with the full national team – a story of close but not cigar. Having successfully steered his young charges through the 1986 Under 21 European Championships group stages – with a hatful of goals in the four group games – Italy overcame England in the semi-finals only to be bettered on penalties by Spain after drawing the two-legged affair 3-3 on aggregate.
During this period, Vicini’s focus though would not be entirely within the confines of the youth set up. Vicini worked closely with the man he would eventually succeed, Enzo Bearzot, in assistant capacity with the Azzurri and some have even suggested that it was the groundwork he put in place that helped to develop the defensive strategy that would contribute greatly towards Italy’s successful World Cup campaign in 1982. It would be under the creeping shadow of that fateful World Cup win that the Nazionale began to flounder in the middle of the 1980s. After ending second from bottom in an embarrassingly dire qualification push for the 1984 European Championship, and being dumped out of the 1986 World Cup by France in the last sixteen, during the defence of their crown, it was apparent that change was afoot and Vicini was given the call at the expense of his close ally Bearzot.
After two years of preparation and tinkering, the first major tournament to test Vicini was the 1988 European Championships in Germany. The Italians managed to qualify without incident and pipped Sweden to the top of Group 2. At the tournament itself – which was still somewhat overshadowed by the Heysel incident – Vicini’s men drew with the West German hosts in the opening game before seeing off Spain 1-0 and Denmark 2-0 to seal a semi-final berth. It would be here though that Vicini and co would be defeated by eventual runners-up the USSR. For many this would be an admirable achievement, but the pinnacle of Vicini’s time in charge of the national team would be World Cup Italia ’90. Under immense pressure due to their status as hosts, many saw the 1990 World Cup as a chance for Italy to restore its wounded pride of the latter part of the 1980s, and Vicini pushed hard to make this a reality. Solidified by the selection of players he had helped groom during his stint at the Azzurrini, it would be Vicini’s inclusion, and eventual lionising, of Salvatore Schillaci in the tournament squad that highlighted the pragmatic nature of the coach’s role.
The uncapped Schillaci marked his debut for the Azzurri with a goal just minutes after entering the fray – Vicini having opted to send on the Messina frontman in place of Andrea Carnevale in their opening group game against Austria in a desperate bid to break the deadlock. The decision would prove pivotal, with Italy marching out 1-0 victors. However, Vicini’s faith in ‘Tote’ would create a rift between himself and Carnevale and lead to the then-Napoli striker making his last appearance for the national side in the next group game against the USA. Carnevale threw histrionics at being replaced by the heroic Schillaci, despite the obvious form of his fellow countryman.
Vicini continually tinkered with the frontline combination – opting to alternate Roberto Baggio, Vialli and Schillaci as he saw fit – but still sailed through the group stages of the tournament, seeing off Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland before being dumped out by a Maradona-influenced Argentina in the semi-finals. Vicini’s team was not just based on Schillaci, but also categorised by its strong defence, based on an all-Milanese set-up of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri in front of Zenga. This formidable backline conceded just once in normal time during the entire unsuccessful campaign and only sat out the final after failing on penalties having been held 1-1 in normal time in the semis. Vicini would bag third place in a throwaway game against England but there was still a lingering disappointment at the national side’s failure to win the title on their own turf and cast off the shackles of post failures.
The 1992 European Championship qualifying went less well than expected, with Italy drawing almost half of their ties and falling into second behind the USSR despite only losing a single game, a 2-1 defeat to Norway. In response to his failure to even make Italy the alternate option to replace civil-war-torn Yugoslavia for the Championships in Sweden, Vicini was axed. Once he was replaced by Sacchi in 1991 he would take some time away from the game before enjoying a brief stint as coach at Udinese during the 1993/94 season.