As Italy crashed out of Euro ‘96 time was up for Coach Arrigo Sacchi. The national federation looked in house for his replacement, and opted to give Cesare Maldini a shot at the big time. After ten years managing the Under 21 national side, the former Milan legend took on the considerable taking the senior team to the next level and bring glory to his homeland.
Since 1986 Maldini had been in charge of the Azzurrini set up. He had carefully nurtured players that would go on to become legends in the game. Such luminaries as Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro and Francesco Totti had all been groomed under the tutelage of the former Milan centre half, and during a glorious six year spell from 1990 to 1996, Maldini headed the team to three consecutive Under 21 European Championship victories, a feat that has never been matched. His experience in the international field, albeit at Under 21 level, gave Maldini the credentials to be the perfect choice for senior national side and his first remit was to get the Azzurri into the 1998 World Cup finals in France.
The qualifying tournament started well for Italy, back to back wins over Moldova (3-1) and Georgia (1-0) laid the foundations for Maldini as he took his charges into their first big test with a match against England at Wembley. A fantastic night for the Azzurri was capped by a wonderful goal from Gianfranco Zola, leaving World Cup qualification in their hands. As the tournament drew ever closer, Italy were still being closely tracked by England and could not afford any slip ups, but their next two away matches saw an ultra defensive Italian side fail to overcome both Poland (0-0) and Georgia (0-0). The final fixture would be the return game against England. Maldini requested the match be played in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico where a hostile atmosphere was sure to be created. This however, only seemed to galvanise the English who only needed a draw to seal qualification and put Italy into a dreaded play off situation. As the Azzurri huffed and puffed they could not break down the English backline, a goalless draw saw England through and sent Maldini’s men into a two legged playoff tie against a dangerous Russian team.
The first leg was played in Moscow in atrocious weather conditions. Christian Vieri fired the Italians in front, but again the Azzurri could not see the game through and a Russian equaliser put the game on a knifedge for the second leg, which was to be played in Naples. Yet again, the crowd were whipped into frenzy and after 53 minutes, Pierluigi Casiraghi latched onto a beautiful through ball from Demetrio Albertini to break the Russian hearts and send the Azzurri into the finals. Maldini could not hide his joy as the ball rippled into the back of the net. Relief all round.
Maldini’s final 22 for the tournament included Inter’s stalwart Giuseppe Bergomi, a veteran of three previous tournaments, his own son Paolo Maldini who would captain the side and the inspirational Roberto Baggio who would be playing in their third finals, goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca, defender Alessandro Costacurta and midfielders Demetrio Albertini and Dino Baggio were the only other players to have World Cup Finals experience. Maldini would be looking to his talisman Christian Vieri to supply the firepower in attack, playing alongside the mercurial Baggio. Hopes were high as Italy kicked off their opening match against Chile in Bordeaux and things seemed to be going to plan when Vieri put the Italians one up inside the opening ten minutes playing a perfect one two with Baggio. But then Italy sank back into their defensive shell and shortly before the interval, the Azzurri defence all stood watching as Marcelo Salas equalised for Chile. Worse was to follow just after the restart as the young Fabio Cannavaro got caught ball watching and Salas again headed in Chile’s second goal. Maldini’s blushes were saved five minutes from time as Baggio converted a penalty and salvaged a draw for Italy. The coach refused to panic amid mounting criticism for his defensive style, keeping to a 4-4-1-1 formation going into the second match against Cameroon. This time his tactics worked to perfection as new boy Luigi Di Biagio put Italy ahead on seven minutes. In the second half two more strikes from the ever impressive Vieri gave Maldini his first victory in the tournament. Vieri was inspired and in the last group game against Austria, he netted again along with substitute Roberto Baggio as Italy finished as group winners an would face Norway in the last 16.
As Italy prepared for the match in Marseille, Maldini opted rather controversially, to keep Roberto Baggio on the bench and start the match with his other main talisman, Alessandro Del Piero. But again it was the then 24-year-old Vieri who stole the show, scoring the game’s only goal with 18 minutes played. The criticism Maldini was taking from the Italian media was being answered single handedly by his big forward who seemed unstoppable in front of goal. Although progression to the last eight had been achieved, Maldini’s conservative approach to every game was causing concern. In the quarter final, Italy would face hosts France with many observers predicting that the winners of this tie would return to the mesmerising Stade de France to contest the final. The pressure was really on and Maldini was feeling the heat as back in the Peninsula, the whole country seemed divided between Roberto Baggio and Del Piero. The last word of course would go to Manager and yet again, he chose Del Piero to supply the ammunition to Vieri. Gianluca Pessotto was drafted into the team in place of Albertini, to add even more steel to the backline. It was clear that Maldini feared the French firepower and a huge weight of expectation fell on the shoulders of midfield trio Di Biagio, Dino Baggio and Francesco Moriero, as they attempted to neutralise the threat of the tournaments biggest star Zinedine Zidane.
After a stale ninety minutes, in which Del Piero had been replaced by Baggio midway through the second half, the game went into golden goal extra-time. Already, it seemed the Italians were playing for penalty kicks, all the old failings seemed to return to Maldini’s men as they desperately clung on during the extra 30 minutes. It was down to spot kicks for a place in the semi-final. After four penalties each, both sides had missed one. France then converted their fifth kick to leave Italy needing to convert to send the game into sudden death. As Di Biagio stepped up to the spot there was a look of sheer terror on his face and as he smashed the ball against the crossbar, there was a sense by many neutrals that justice had been done. Italy had paid the ultimate price for their negative attitude throughout the match. As the squad returned to the peninsula, Maldini’s tactics, that had been so heavily criticised during the tournament inevitably led to his resignation, another coach falling victim to a savage Italian media.
After three years spent in the managerial wilderness, Maldini made a brief return to Milan as Coach, where he had managed for one season way back in the 1973-74 campaign. It was in a dual capacity working alongside Mauro Tassotti, it was always to be a temporary position and the duo was eventually replaced by Fatih Terim. Incredibly, Maldini then took up the post of national coach of Paraguay, an appointment that was met with great opposition from home based managers who seemed to have been overlooked by the national federation. However, working under difficult circumstances, Maldini took his team to the knockout stage of the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea where they would fall to eventual finalists Germany.
Maldini’s reign as Azzurri coach will always be remembered as an era with great promise, yet it delivered so little. Having the attacking qualities of Del Piero, Baggio and Vieri at his disposable, he always seemed to air on the side of caution, never allowing a truly gifted set of players to fully express their undoubted qualities. The legacy left by Maldini in 1998, came to fruition in 2006 on that never to be forgotten night in Berlin. Ii the opinion of this writer that the biggest smile in the whole of Italy, as Fabio Cannavaro lifted aloft football’s biggest prize, would have been the one stretching across the face of Cesare Maldini, as one of the boys he had shrewdly groomed a decade earlier, reached the pinnacle of his career.