“I don’t take lessons in dignity from Mr. Berlusconi,” muttered Dino Zoff upon his resignation after Italy’s last-gasp defeat to Zinedine Zidane’s France in the final of Euro 2000. Italy were left devastated by Sylvain Wiltord and David Trezeguet’s killer goals and mourned the loss in usual, melodramatic fashion. But as fans wept, there was one other emotion hanging in the air – one of sympathy for Zoff. The man, the genius and the heartbeat of the Azzurri side that lifted the 1982 World Cup and brought glory back to the Italian homeland, resigned. The majority of Italy sympathised with Zoff, disappointed that the team’s exceptional performance only resulted in a runners-up medal, the majority of Italy that is barring Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, the Italian premier, publicly criticised Zoff’s tactics when it came to marking Zidane and branded his decisions “amateurish”, harsh words that led the popular Coach to abandon his post.
His replacement, the silver-haired, choleric and celebrated, Giovanni Trapattoni, was arguably the most successful Italian Coach at the time. Fondly remembered for presiding over the great Juventus team that possessed the likes of Michel Platini and Paolo Rossi, from the mid-seventies through to the mid-eighties, Trapattoni won everything at club level. In complete contrast to the departing Zoff, Trapattoni was loud and enthralling, renowned for his manic rantings, his ear-splitting whistles and fiery manner – the Italian people absolutely loved him. Il Trap, as he was affectionately dubbed, was most famous for his bizarre outburst at a news conference during his spell as Coach of Bayern Munich. Bayern’s players criticised Trapattoni’s tactics that led him to go off on a tangent, in broken German, in response to their remarks. Regardless of his rather hilarious temper, Trapattoni had a glittering career that saw him guide his teams to seven Scudettos, a Champions League title and three UEFA Cups.
As a Coach, Trapattoni’s infamous quote perfectly summed up his footballing philosophy: “The memory of beautiful football lasts for a while, the result lasts forever.” Perhaps a symptom of his poor upbringing, the man held a socialist view on football, treating everyone in the same way, no matter if they were national heros, symbolic icons or youth players who were eager to prove themselves on the big stage. Il Maestro was famed for his ability to bring established stars together with the likes of lesser-known players with the aim of working as a group. His teams maintained ball possession, defended with passion and avoided vulgar displays of flamboyance.
“I worked very closely with Trapattoni when he was the coach of Bayern Munich, and I was in charge of the German national team,” noted Berti Vogts. “He is a good coach, very experienced, a typical Italian manager. For him, one goal is enough.” Often criticised for being a Catenacciaro, Trap was known to be a disciple of Italy’s suffocating and somewhat boring style of play. His favourite tactic was one whereby his team would take the lead, park the metaphoric bus in front of goal and spend the rest of the game defending their slight advantage. But, what was one to expect from a man who notably said: “If I want to see a show, I go to La Scala, I don’t go to the football stadium.” Tell that to those who paid money to watch 11 players defending their one-goal lead – attacking football was never going to be on the agenda. Unfortunately for Trap, the notion of an unbreakable Italian defence proved to be nothing more than an aged myth, as the Azzurri’s games under the Maestro effectively demonstrated.
Italy, by and large, had one of the best squads on paper entering the World Cup in 2002. They came top of group eight and were undefeated in all of their qualifying games, winning six and drawing two. Italians everywhere believed they had finally found the man that was going to bring home the trophies. Most impressively though was the fact that the Azzurri only conceded three goals in the qualifiers and managed to score 16. So off they went to Asia’s first-ever FIFA World Cup, armed with a team that was unlike previous Italian national sides. The all-star team held as much strength in the defence as it did in attack. The sturdy back-line boasted Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini whilst the attack had so many options that it bordered on the ostentatious, featuring the likes of Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero. Unlike the Azzurri teams of yesteryear that heavily relied on a concrete defence, a hardworking midfield and a prolific and dependable goalscorer – such as Paolo Rossi or Salvatore Schillaci, Trapattoni’s squad possessed more depth, more creativity and fine finishers who were tipped to take them all the way.
Pitted against Ecuador, Croatia and Mexico, on paper, it seemed inevitable that Italy would emerge winners and the Azzurri began their journey in predictable fashion winning their first group game against Ecuador. Rumblings of scheming plots and conspiracy theories began to filter as two goals, controversially disallowed in their second match against Croatia, began what was going to be the underlying theme of Trapattoni’s time with the national team. Coupled with a sudden dip in form, Italy lost their second game and required a last-gasp equaliser from Del Piero in their final group match against Mexico to enable them to scramble through to the second stage of the competition. Trapattoni remained calm and Italians continued to show faith in their Coach – after all the Azzurri were notorious slow starters in major tournaments.
Coached by the man who is now only too familiar with the bitter taste of unjust defeat, Guus Hiddink, Italy faced hosts South Korea in the second round in a match that few would ever forget. As had become the norm, Italy took the lead with an early Vieri strike. One goal proved enough for il Maestro as he replaced the creative Del Piero for the tenaciously defensive Gennaro Gattuso in order to protect their slim lead. The mythological solid defence was eventually broken by the ‘never-say-die’ attitude of the Koreans who equalised in the 88th minute through Seol Ki-Heon, to force extra time. And with only three minutes of the extra 30 left on the clock, Ahn Jung-Hwan headed home the Golden Goal and Italy were ignominiously defeated and out of the competition.
Cue raging fury back home as politicians, players and media alike went into frenzy, blaming dark plots and insanely poor refereeing decisions on their elimination. One couldn’t help but sympathise with the plight of the Italians as the referee, Byron Moreno, appeared to be affected by the overwhelming volume of home fans’ chantings and made poor judgements to allow one of the greatest World Cup upsets in history. A disallowed goal for Italy that was wrongly judged to be offside in addition to a red card for Totti, who appeared to be fouled, drove the football-obsessed nation to cry foul and allowed Trapattoni a scapegoat for his failings.
“Frankly, that was complete robbery,” Bruno Pizzul the football commentator, noted after the match. Perhaps, but with a team that boasted such pure talent, Italy should have scored more to ensure their place in the quarter-finals. Fervent supporters were left dumbfounded when Trap insisted that the Azzurri played well throughout and only suffered as a result of suspicious refereeing decisions and he irked them further by flatly refusing to resign as Coach. Trap’s defence may have been the best but no backline is invincible and as Christian Panucci proved, one mistake can cost you the competition as his slip-up allowed South Korea to continue their remarkable run much further in the tournament.
Needless to say, Il Trap kept his job and qualification for the Euro 2004 presented him with a chance to redeem himself. However, Italy’s 2-1 defeat to Wales meant his job, once again, hung in the balance but for lack of a better option, the Italian FA decided to stick with the former Juventus Coach. In an effort to prove his critics wrong, Trap made bold decisions that really paid off as he began deploying the demanded 4-2-3-1 formation and was often found fielding up to four strikers at any one time. A surge in the amount of goals scored, including four past the same Welsh side that had previously defeated them, saw the Italians qualify for the European Championships in commanding fashion. Would the Coach maintain this attacking style of football or would he buckle under the pressure and revert back to his negative defensive tactics?
Giovanni set off for Portugal with a similar star-studded squad and revenge was on the agenda. They found themselves in a relatively easy group, pitted against Denmark, Sweden and Bulgaria. The Azzurri kicked off their Euro journey in a game marred by Totti’s disgusting behaviour, against a Danish side they seriously underestimated. Denmark put in a spirited performance as they exploited the wings and pressured the Italians deep into their own half leaving the Italian defence in tatters and the players shocked. The aggressive Danes troubled the usually outstanding Nesta and Cannavaro, limiting them to long balls in an attempt to safeguard their net. By the time the Italians had realised that they had a real game on their hands, a win was virtually made impossible and a draw was all they could muster.
In the next game against Sweden, Italy played beautiful free-flowing attacking football for 70 minutes, by far the best football played during the group stages. In the first half, Italy’s defence stifled the plucky Swedish forward line that had managed to score five goals in its previous match against Bulgaria. The Azzurri took full advantage of the space on the wings to angle lethal balls into goal and unsurprisingly took the lead through Totti’s replacement, Antonio Cassano. However, much like an addict suffering from withdrawal, Trapattoni cracked and began his tactical substitutions with only 20 minutes left on the clock. Holding midfielder, Stefano Fiore, came on for Cassano, while midfielder Gattuso was sacrificed in favour of Giuseppe Favalli, a defender and Mauro Camoranesi replaced the creative Del Piero. The Italians, as had been expected, reverted to their Cantenaccio roots and defended their lead – unsuccessfully that is. Zlatan Ibrahimovic equalised for the Swedes to leave Italy’s hopes of going further in the competition hanging by a thread.
The Azzurri had to defeat Bulgaria in their last group match and pray that a high-scoring draw between Scandinavian foes, Denmark and Sweden, would not occur. Yet, low and behold, Mattias Jonson scored the late equaliser in the 89th minute to give Sweden their 2-2 draw and the Italian nation fell into hysterics as they yet again suffered the cruel fate that saw them eliminated despite beating Bulgaria 2-1. Whether or not the Scandinavians ever did broker a deal to allow them both the chance to progress will forever remain a mystery but in truth, Trapattoni had nobody but himself to blame. La Gazzetta put it beautifully when their headline read “Four years of failure, from Japan to Portugal.” His defensive tactics cost them the game against Sweden and when questioned about his choice replied: “I had to intervene because some players had given an awful lot and were tired.” A blatant lie, as his substitutions were clearly tactical and he was simply mortified that he got it wrong. In addition to his defensive approach, his insistence on using the attacking partnership of Vieri and Del Piero, who had both just come off weak seasons, jeopardised Italy’s chance of progressing. Meanwhile the rising star that was Cassano found himself on the bench far too often and Alberto Gilardino who was then the most promising young talent taking Serie A by storm, was excluded from the squad.
“Coaches are like fish – after a while they start to stink.” The Maestro once mused. Well Trapattoni began to stink and was promptly replaced by another silver-haired Coach, Marcello Lippi, who as we all know, managed to guide Italy to the World Cup. Trap’s time will forever be remembered as one tarnished by evil rumours of conspiracies and opponents collectively scheming to send his team out of all major tournaments. Perhaps he was just unlucky or perhaps he just couldn’t handle the pressure. Judging by the matches he was in charge of, one is inclined to believe it was the latter.