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For a country with a World Cup record only second to Brazil, one would have expected Italy’s history in the European Championships to be equally as impressive.
However this has not really proved to be the case. In the 12 tournaments to be staged since 1960, Italy have won the competition just once, and aside from this have reached the final, semi-final, and a third-and-fourth playoff on one occasion each. They have failed to qualify on five occasions, although three of these were before the final tournament was expanded in 1980. Nevertheless they remain the fourth most successful country in the history of the Euros, behind Germany, France and Russia.
1960 Did not Enter
1964 Did not Qualify
1972 Did not Qualify
1976 Did not Qualify
1980 Fourth place
1984 Did not Qualify
1992 Did not Qualify
1996 Round 1
2004 Round 1
With the exception of Euro 68, when they emerged victorious on home soil, the Azzurri’s early days in the European Championships were nothing short of disastrous. They did not enter in 1960, while they failed to qualify in 1964, 1972 and 1976.
It must be noted that during each of these first five championships, only four teams participated in the final tournament, as it wasn’t until 1980 that this number rose to eight, and then again to 16 in 1996. Therefore in the primitive years, just to qualify for the final tournament was something of an achievement.
Italy were eliminated by long-time bogey team, and then holders, the USSR in the last 16 of the qualifying for Euro 64, they were beaten by Belgium in the last eight prior to Euro 72, while four years later they didn’t even make it past the preliminary rounds, finishing behind both Holland and Poland in Group 5.
Euro 68 Winners
Italy’s one victory in the history of the championships came bang in the middle of this European lean period. The Azzurri were under intense pressure going into the tournament on home soil, following another diabolical World Cup performance in England two years earlier.
The Superga Air disaster in 1949 which wiped out the ‘Grande Torino’, hit the Italian national team hard, as 10 of the Azzurri first team, including the legendary Valentino Mazzola, all perished. Italy were knocked out of the 1950, 1954 and 1962 World Cups in the first round, they failed to qualify for 1958, while they returned home from England 66 in disgrace, receiving rotten fruit treatment from supporters, having lost to minnows North Korea.
It was in 1968 that Italy, World Cup winners from 1934 and 1938, reawakened as an international superpower. Led by Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi, the Azzurri possessed some legendary players within their ranks, including goalkeeper Dino Zoff, Inter trio Giacinto Facchetti, Tarciso Burgnich and Sandro Mazzola, Milan’s Gianni Rivera, and the country’s all-time top scorer Gigi Riva.
However they did ride their luck on their way to glory. In the semi-final against the USSR, the game finished goalless after 90 minutes and extra time. At this time penalties were not used as a decider, so the even crueller lottery of a toss-of-a-coin was used to establish who went through to the final. Luck was on Italy’s side.
In the final itself in Rome, Italy trailed to Dragan Džajić’s goal, and required an 80th minute equaliser from Angelo Domenghini, who blasted home a free-kick, to force a replay. In the rerun two days later, the return of Mazzola and Riva inspired the Azzurri as they dominated from start-to-finish, winning 2-0 with first half goals from Riva and Pietro Anastasi. Captain Facchetti held the Henri Delaunay trophy aloft, as Italy celebrated their only European Championships to date. Many of this team would go on to finish runners-up to Brazil at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
1980 – Hosts Again
Twelve years after winning the trophy, Italy once again hosted the Euros in 1980, the first modern version of the tournament, when eight teams now participated in the finals. Italy had high hopes going into the tournament following the impressive fourth-placed finish at the World Cup in Argentina. Coach was the great Enzo Bearzot, while six of the first team were from the dominant Juventus side of this time, names that included Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Marco Tardelli, Roberto Bettega, Franco Causio and a survivor from 1968, Zoff.
The Azzurri had a virtually impenetrable defence but it would be a lack of goals down the other end that would cost them. They drew their first game of Group 2 with Spain 0-0, defeated England 1-0 thanks to Tardelli’s late strike, meaning they had to beat Belgium in their last pool match to qualify for the final. They failed to do so, drawing 0-0, thus they were forced to play a third-and-fourth playoff against Czechoslovakia, which they lost 9-8 on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
1984, 1992 & 1996 – Three More Failures
Italy suffered a post-World Cup hangover after their success in Spain in 1982, as they failed to even qualify for Euro 84. Indeed in a modest group containing Romania, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Cyprus, Bearzot’s men finished second-bottom, winning just one game, and going 18 months without winning a competitive match.
Italy also failed to qualify for Euro 92, as they finished second in Group 3 behind the USSR. The Azzurri only lost one game in qualifying, a 2-1 defeat in Norway, but they were ultimately left to rue too many draws, including ties against Hungary, the USSR twice, and Norway again at home.
Italy at least managed to qualify for Euro 96, but they again disappointed in England, just like they had at the World Cup 30 years before, exiting in the first round. Everything started so well as they beat Russia 2-1 in the opening game. In the second group match, Arrigo Sacchi inexplicably decided to rest a host of first team players, expecting an easy victory over supposed minnows (but eventual runners-up) the Czech Republic. Sacchi’s ten men lost 2-1, with a young Pavel Nedved earning himself a move to Serie A with one of the goals.
Italy needed to win their last game against Germany to qualify, but could only manage a 0-0 draw as Gianfranco Zola missed a penalty. Even so, Italy would still have made it to the quarters, had Vladimir Smicer not scored an 88th minute equaliser for the Czechs against Russia. Italy’s luck deserted them, just as it did throughout the entire period 1990-2000.
1988 and 2000 – Better Times
Italy’s two best performances in the Euros, excluding 1968, came in 1988 and 2000.
At the former, a surprisingly young Italy squad, with an average age of just 23, made it all the way to the semis, where once again the USSR would prove to be their undoing. The Azzurri impressed in the group stages, drawing 1-1 with West Germany, before defeating Spain and Demark. In the semis, Italy had their chances, Gianluca Vialli in particular, but they were sent packing by goals from Gennadiy Litovtchenko and Oleg Protassov. Nevertheless it had been a successful tournament for Italy. A 19-year-old wonderkid called Paolo Maldini was the best full back in the championships, while a host of other players would go on to star at Italia 90, including the likes of Roberto Donadoni, Giuseppe Giannini, Walter Zenga, and already established names Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi.
Italy always perform when they are apparently given no hope. This was the case in the World Cups of 1982 and 2006, and to an extent at Euro 88. It was a similar story at Euro 2000. Coach Dino Zoff had received heavy criticism in the months leading up to the tournament, but Italy blew away everything in their path as they comfortably won their first four games to reach the semi-finals.
There they played hosts Holland, and thanks to the simply world class Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, and an inspired goalkeeper in Francesco Toldo, Italy, who had Gianluca Zambrotta sent off on 34 minutes, somehow managed to survive 120 minutes of intense Dutch pressure, including two missed penalties, to win in a shootout. In the final itself, they faced bitter rivals France, who had beaten them on spot-kicks at France 98 two years earlier. Italy seemed all set for glory when Marco Delvecchio put them ahead on 55 minutes. Alessandro Del Piero then missed two sitters to make it 2-0, and this would prove costly as Sylvain Wiltord equalised deep into stoppage time. Italy were heartbroken, and it was inevitable that Les Bleus would go on to win, David Trezeguet providing the killer golden goal. It would be six years until Italy would enact their revenge in the final of the 2006 World Cup.
Euro 2004 Debacle
Italy have never had two sound European Championships in succession, and this was proved once again in Portugal in 2004. Coach Giovanni Trapattoni had failed to replicate his legendary club record on the international stage, when Italy crashed out of the 2002 World Cup in the second phase to co-hosts South Korea. However he kept his job due to the scandalous circumstances regarding Italy’s elimination, as they had had five perfectly legitimate goals disallowed in three games, not to mention a host of other dubious refereeing calls that would permeate the entire tournament.
At Euro 2004, Trapattoni’s miserable four-year spell ended with another highly controversial exit. Italy drew their first two games with Denmark (0-0) and Sweden (1-1), and even before a ball was kicked in their final match with Bulgaria, conspiracy theories were already being drawn up. A score draw of 2-2 or higher between Sweden and Denmark would see Italy eliminated on a three-way head-to-head, regardless of how many goals the Azzurri put past Bulgaria. By strange coincidence or not, the clash between the Nordic neighbours finished 2-2, rendering Italy’s 2-1 win of their own meaningless. Italy cried of foul play as they had in Korea, but their tournament was over, as was Trapattoni’s reign. In came Marcello Lippi, and the rest as they say, is history.