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Italian Football

A Divine Symphony

The sky was a cloudless azure above Italy on Sunday, July 9th 2006, never mind that it was evening. The azzuri held aloft the FIFA World Cup for the fourth time, after a gap of nearly a quarter of a century, and the nation threw up its collective cap in celebration.

Winning is nothing new to the Italian soccer team. In fact, it has made rather a habit of it since its inception in the early years of soccer history. The team defeated arch-rivals France 6-2 on its debut outing in Milan on May 15th 1910. History repeated itself 96 years later in Berlin.

The national team wears sky-blue jerseys, a color known as azzuro in Italian. Hence the sobriquet “Azzuri” for the team. After that first victory against France, the Italian team was catapulted into the status of a team to be reckoned with. True, they missed the first World Cup in 1934, being checked by Uruguay, but they made up for it in the next two successive editions of the tournament in 1934 and ‘38.

Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup, and the home team defeated Czechoslovakia 2–1 in Rome to lift the trophy. In 1938, they did it again when they trounced Hungary 4-2 in France, to become the kings of the soccer world.

But post-World War II, Italian soccer took a beating. On May 4, 1949, almost the whole Grande Torino team was killed when the plane in which they were traveling crashed into the Superga Hills near Turin. The national team lost all but one of the 11 members of its starting line-up in the tragedy.

Thereafter, the team suffered a 16-year drought, failing to win even a single tournament. During the early 1960s, though Italian football clubs like AC Milan and Internazionale were riding high in Europe, the National team was unable to notch up a significant victory.The worst defeat it suffered was at the hands of the semi-professional North Korea team in the final of the 1966 World Cup match.

The drought finally ended in 1968, when Italy won its first major championship title since 1950 – it bagged the European Championship cup, defeating Yugoslavia in Rome. The match went down in history as the only one to be played twice. The first one ended in a 1-1 draw in spite of extra time, and, in the pre-penalty era, it was re-played. The second time around, Italy won 2-0.

Italy won the next few championships. The team took the Olympic gold in 1936 and bronzes in the 1928 Summer Olympics and 2004 games. But the World Cup again evaded them in 1970. The semi-final between Italy and West Germany has come to be classified as the Game of the Century. The match was won 4-3 after extra time, and a marker at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico city commemorates the extraordinary encounter. Italy had taken a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute, but Germany equalized and held the position until, almost at the very end of the game, Italy scored in injury time. In extra time, Germany snatched the lead in the 94th minute, but Italian Defender Burgnich levelled the score. In the 104th minute, Gigi Riva made it 3-2, but Muller scored the equaliser just six minutes later. However, before Germany could take a deep breath, Italy’s Rivera made the winning goal in the 111th minute.

The valiant effort in the semi-final went in vain when Brazil defeated Italy in the final.

It was only in 1982 that Italy won the World Cup again, defeating Argentina (2-1), Brazil (3-2) and Poland (2-0) en route. In the finals, they beat West Germany 3-1 and Paolo Rossi acquired the status of an Italian legend by scoring 6 goals in the last 3 matches, including the important opener in the final.

The 1990 World Cup was once again held in Italy, but the home team fell by the wayside, despite a good beginning. They lost to Argentina 4-3 in the semi-final, and took the third spot by beating England 2-1. They made it to the finals in the 1994 edition, but had to concede defeat to Brazil. The 2000 World Cup saw a similar situation, while in 2002 and 2004, they were unable to reach even the quarter-final stage.

On July 9 2006, the Azzurri won their fourth World Cup, defeating France 5-3 in Berlin on penalties, after tying 1-1 at the end of extra time. They are now the second most successful World Cup team, coming just behind Brazil with five World Cups to its credit.

Some milestones – both good and bad:

First International:
Italy 6 - 2 France (Milan, Italy; 15 May 1910)
Largest win:
Italy 9 - 0 USA (Brentford, England; 2 August 1948)
Worst defeat:
Hungary 7 - 1 Italy (Budapest, Hungary; 6 April 1924)
World Cup Appearances:
15 (First in 1934) Best result Winners, 1934, 1938, 1982 2006
European Championship Appearances:
6 (First in 1968) Best result Winners, 1968

Current players of note:

Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon, Morgan De Sanctis, Angelo Peruzzi, Flavio Roma

Defenders: Andrea Barzagli, Fabio Cannavaro, Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Materazzi, Alessandro Nesta, Massimo Oddo, Cristian Zaccardo, Gianluca Zambrotta

Midfielders: Manuele Blasi, Mauro Camoranesi, Daniele De Rossi, Mauro Esposito, Gennaro Ivan Gattuso, Fabio Grosso, Andrea Pirlo

Forwards: Antonio Cassano, Alessandro Del Piero, Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Luca Toni, Francesco Totti, Christian Vier

Manager - Marcello Lippi

Captain - Fabio Cannavaro

As of July 2006, the players with the most caps for Italy are: