Four World Cups and 28 European trophies - why are Italy the most successful football nation in history?

By Carlo Garganese

Madonna once famously flaunted a slogan T-Shirt with the caption: "Italians do it better". And while the Princess of Pop was suggestively alluding to another physically popular pastime, she could just as well have been referring to football.

Having won the World Cup on four occasions, only Brazil have lifted sport’s greatest prize more times than Italy – and that was courtesy of a penalty shootout victory over the Azzurri in 1994.

On the club scene, the peninsula has accumulated the most major European trophies – a total of 38 triumphs in the past and present equivalents of the Champions League, Europa League and the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup.

Until a fortnight ago, when Egypt’s Al-Ahly captured the African Super Cup, seven-time European Cup winners AC Milan were 'Il club più titolato al mondo' – the club with the most international trophies in the world. Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering club side of the late 1980s and early 90s - boasting superstars Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini - are regarded by many as the greatest to have ever existed.

But what is the secret behind this success?

It is a question that has many explanations – ranging from the socio-cultural and anthropological to the more practical.

Tactical supremacy

On a purely footballing level, there is little doubt that Italy’s tactical supremacy has been a key weapon. Whether it be Helenio Herrera’s Catenaccio, Sacchi’s total pressing or Luciano Spalletti’s ‘False 9’, the peninsula has long been at the forefront of strategic innovation.

There is a unique obsession with tactics in Italy. Its importance is drilled into children from a young age, coaches study their next opponents meticulously, entire training sessions can be consumed on planning, while football shows are dominated by tactical discussion. The press analysis is forensic, focusing on microscopic details such as whether Napoli right back Christian Maggio pushed up too high for Swansea’s equaliser or if AC Milan’s Adel Taarabt was excessively drifting in-field versus Juventus.
Italy's incredible records
38Record number of major European trophies amassed by Serie A clubs in the three major continental competitions.
18International trophies won by AC Milan. The Rossoneri had been the world’s most successful club until being overtaken by Al-Ahly.
10Number of Italian coaches to have guided their team to European Cup/Champions League glory, again a record.
5Italy have produced the joint-most single Ballon d’Or winners. Juventus and Milan (8) also have more champions than any other club.
4Number of World Cups that Italy have won. Only Brazil have captured more. The Azzurri have also been runners-up twice.
2Italy have only lost two World Cup knockout games in normal time in history. All other knockout defeats came via penalties or Golden Goal.

A country’s media has a profound impact on the thought processes of its inhabitants and Jose Mourinho once amusingly remarked that “everyone in Italy thinks they are a coach”. While fans in various other nations find tactics boring, the average Italian is fascinated by the subject and recognises its significance. It is only natural that the country breeds great footballing brains in both a playing and coaching capacity.

No country has produced even a fraction of the world class defenders that Italy has churned out. Stoppers such as Gaetano Scirea, Baresi, Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro were celebrated for their understanding of the game, reading the play three or four moves ahead of the action. This has led to the formation of countless impenetrable backlines - Herrera's double European Cup winners at Inter, Giovanni Trapattoni's Juventus, Sacchi's Milan and, of course, Italy's World Cup-winning defences of 1982 and 2006.

Italian coaches are just as famed for being proactive, which explains the non-stop conveyor belt of elite managers. Italy holds the record for most European Cup and Uefa Cup-winning trainers. These coaches have undeniably been aided by the world-renowned Coverciano national training centre that has nurtured luminaries like Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti.

Coverciano teaches its students to be strategically adaptable and it is here where Italy’s tactical superiority has really paid dividends. Whereas teams and clubs from many other nations have for much of their existence identified themselves with one particular style or system – Netherlands with 4-3-3, Brazil with attractive attacking play, Spain with short passing – Italy have, despite the occasional urge to resort to defence at decisive moments, always been experts at changing their skin.

During the 2006 World Cup finals, Lippi utilised 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-4 systems – many of these during the same game. “Italy are the most tactically evolved nation in the world,” the ex-Juventus boss boasted. This virtue is particularly valuable during knockout football when predictability and naivety is punished mercilessly and outwitting your opponent is often decisive. The ultimate tournament team, the Azzurri have, incredibly, only lost two World Cup knockout matches in normal time - to Pele's Brazil in the 1970 final and Michel Platini's France in the second round of 1986.

Machiavelli's win at all costs mentality

Also pivotal is Italy’s professionalism – which until the 1990s saw it ahead of the crowd in terms of diet and preparation – and in particular its win-at-all-costs mentality. Stereotypes are a dangerous thing, as every human being is different, but no population has mastered the dark arts quite like the Italians.

The Florentine Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli heavily influenced the national psyche in this respect. His political masterpiece ‘The Prince’, which breaks down how to attain and retain power, is immortalised by the saying: “the end justifies the means”.

Macchiavelli wrote that it is the result that counts, even if it is obtained via methods that are cynical and calculating. This is often played out today in Italian public life, especially in the south, whether it be by evading taxes, breaking petty rules or boarding a train without a ticket. On the football pitch, this deception is replaced by offences such as shirt-pulling, simulation, tactical fouls and other forms of gamesmanship. To be 'furbo', crafty, is regarded not as cheating but as a skill.

Due to globalisation and the expansion of the game, even traditionally principled nations such as England have recently developed some Machiavellian tendencies. But over the last 50 years or so, Latin countries - particularly Italy - have enjoyed a huge advantage over the rest of the world when it comes to being cunning and canny.

Marco Materazzi's verbal goading of Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final led to the iconic midfielder being infamously sent off for headbutting the defender in extra-time. Without their captain and leader, France lost on penalties. In the 1982 triumph, there are legendary tales of hardman Claudio Gentile man-marking Diego Maradona and Zico during the victories over Argentina and Brazil, respectively. The latter had his shirt virtually ripped in half during one tussle in the area that went unpunished.

Play with your head | Materazzi's provoking of Zidane helped Italy win 2006 World Cup

Even back in 1934, when Italy won their first World Cup, Enrique Guaita scored the semi-final decider versus Austria after Giuseppe Meazza had deviously bundled goalkeeper Peter Platzer over the line.

“When an Italian tells me it’s pasta on the plate I check under the sauce to make sure. They are the inventors of the smokescreen,” former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once joked.

In truth, the Scot has a huge admiration for the tactical and mental power of Italian teams and admitted that he modelled his 1999 Champions League winners on the “desire to win” of Lippi’s great Juventus side starring Gianluca Vialli, Alessandro Del Piero and Didier Deschamps.

Football is a religion

This desire to win is a key factor in the Italian success story. Along with Brazil, Italy is arguably the only country in the world in which football can truly be classed as a religion. So devout are the nation's followers that some figures have achieved deity-like status, such as Diego Maradona in Naples. Although at club level, economic booms and the financial backing of rich tycoons like Silvio Berlusconi, Gianni Agnelli and Massimo Moratti have been instrumental, it is this fanaticism that helps compensate for Italy’s relatively modest standing, compared to other major footballing nations like Brazil, Germany and France, when it comes to population size and the current GDP.

Calcio forms such a major part of one's identity, national and personal, and the game is ridiculously intertwined with every aspect of life - from flags and pendants in every cafe to politicians like Benito Mussolini and Berlusconi using the sport’s popularity to advance their political causes.

There is blanket coverage in the press, with three daily sports newspapers – La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tuttosport and Corriere dello Sport – having all been in circulation since the end of World War II. Male or female, young or old, upper or lower class – everyone in Italy knows about football. It is simply impossible to escape the fervour.

This passion can be explained partly by Italy’s late development as a nation state. Italy was only unified in 1871 and remains to this day a very fractured union of single towns (comuni) and cities. Since the Middle Ages, there has been a fierce rivalry between city-states – Livorno vs Pisa, Bergamo vs Brescia, Padova vs Venezia. Centuries of warring, foreign domination and power shifts have bred survival instincts (again a factor in Italy’s great production of defenders) within each region and an extra competitive edge that is also transferred onto the football pitch. The best example is Maradona’s Napoli, who created a special community between club and city which will perhaps never be matched elsewhere.

"Italians lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars"

- Winston Churchill

Paradoxically, despite a 1986 government study revealing that 62 per cent of Italians did not feel part of a national collective group, there is one thing that unifies these ruptured regions. And that is the Azzurri. A record 32 million Italians watched the 1982 World Cup final win over West Germany on television. When the World Cup begins, all divisions are forgotten – and certainly Mussolini was influential in creating this combined passion as under his dictatorship football became Italy’s national sport and the country experienced great pride in winning successive World Cups in the 1930s.

This pride and passion can be so over-focused on football that Winston Churchill famously quipped, "Italians lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars," contrasting how the Azzurri fought like lions against England during the infamous Battle of Highbury in 1934 but were slightly more indifferent when it came to defending Europe from Germany.

Winning combination

If Churchill were alive today, he could have added that Italy have still never lost a competitive football match to Germany. A statistic that, given the DFB’s equally outstanding production of fantastic footballers, can only be explained by Italy’s superior tactical and mental qualities.

Indeed, there are four main characteristics that define the strength of a football player or team; tactical, mental, technical and physical. Technically and physically, there have been nations who have been better than Italy. In the former category, Brazil will always reign supreme, while the likes of Netherlands, Argentina and Spain have all – aesthetically at least – often had the upper hand too. In the latter section, Italian teams have never been able to match the intensity of northern Europe, the former Eastern bloc and West Africa.

Yet Italy have still been strong in both of these areas. Technically, this is a nation that has spawned geniuses such as Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Andrea Pirlo. Physically, there have been hardmen of the calibre of Tarcisio Burgnich, Romeo Benetti, Gentile, Pietro Vierchowod and Rino Gattuso.

When you blend all four categories together, it is easy to see why Italy has been the world’s most successful football nation. Many other countries have for long periods been completely deficient in at least one of these areas; England technically and Spain mentally, for example.

Italy have been the masters tactically and mentally and more than held their own elsewhere. It is a winning combination that has produced results even Machiavelli would have been proud of. Love them or hate them, Italians do it better.

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