Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Enzo Bearzot (1927-2010)

Enzo Bearzot, who died today at the age of 83, was the man who in 1982 steered the Italian national football team to its first World Cup triumph in 44 years. In so doing, his name became only the second to go on the role of honour after that of Vittorio Pozzo, coach of the 1934 and 1938 sides who died on this same day exactly 42 years ago.

Bearzot’s place in history wasn’t earned overnight. After a modest playing career featuring two spells at Inter Milan and Torino, he swiftly moved into an assistant coaching role at the latter in 1964. From there, he took outright control of Serie C side Prato before eventually linking up with the Italian Under-23 side in 1969. There he stayed until 1975 when the call came to take on the full national side.

Taking over from Fulvio Bernardini after a poor 1974 World Cup campaign, Bearzot slowly created a side that not only embodied a traditional sense of defensive strength but also a notable degree of flare and élan.

A creditable fourth place in the 1978 World Cup showed Bearzot was starting to make things happen as his players earned many a rave review for their open, positive style of play. Four years later, the hard work he’d put in paid dividends. His 1982 squad, made up mainly of those who’d featured in the previous competition, were (mostly) in their late-20’s and had the positive experience of 1978 to give them confidence too.

One player undoubtedly outside that age bracket was Dino Zoff who, at 40, was the captain of the team and a stalwart of the Juventus side over more than 300 appearances. In defence, there was Claudio Gentile - Zoff’s Juve team-mate and man-marker supreme. Mario Kempes was rendered ineffective by his aggressive, invasive method of defending four years previously, and Diego Maradona would famously receive the same treatment in their Second Round match of 1982.

In midfield was the team's engine, Marco Tardelli – a player who ran endlessly, made tough tackles and scored important goals. His passion and desire to win would be a vital component in the Azzurri side in Spain and, you’ve guessed it – he played his club football for Juventus too.

Up front was yet another Juventus player and Bearzot’s most contentious choice of all. Paolo Rossi had been suspended from the game for two years for his part in the famous Totonero betting scandal and when he was finally eligible to play again, the 1982 World Cup was only two months away. Never mind – Bearzot overlooked Rossi’s abject lack of match fitness and picked him on merit as a one-time top scorer in Serie A and Serie B.

The Italian press were apoplectic with fury over the decision and needed little incentive to increase their already rough treatment of the coach and his players. And things were to get worse when Italy made a slow start to the ’82 finals, drawing all three games against Cameroon, Poland and Peru. Italian journalists went for the jugular and twisted the knife, inventing stories about drug-taking orgies and the supposed homosexuality of certain squad members.

Bearzot’s masterstroke was to shut out the press, imposing a news blackout around the team camp. At a stroke, the silenzio stampa ensured the players were focused on their football while creating a siege mentality sadly lacking in their early games. It was to transform the team’s fortunes.

Pitched against Argentina and Brazil in their Second Round group, Bearzot’s Italy were ready to play to the best of their abilities. Gentile followed his coach’s instructions to the letter and smothered Maradona in the group opener, thereby allowing his blue-shirted team mates to calmly go about beating their opposite number. In the final game of the group, Brazil only needed a draw to qualify for the semi-finals but failed to outscore the masterful Paolo Rossi who notched up a hat-trick in Barcelona.

In the semis, Rossi added two more to beat a Poland side lacking their star striker Boniek, and in the Final, despite Antonio Cabrini’s first half penalty miss, Italy prevailed with a 3-1 win over West Germany. Rossi had his name on the scoresheet again, and this time it was joined by Marco Tardelli and Alessandro Altobelli.

Where once there seemed little hope of glory, Enzo Bearzot had conjured up a World Cup win the like of which hadn’t been seen for several generations. His tactical awareness, his faith in the individual qualities of his players and his quiet determination were just the tonic for a tifosi starved of success since before the Second World War. Bearzot had reminded his fellow Italians of the joy it felt to be Italian, and an entire nation was grateful.

It would have been easy to retire at the highest of high points, but Bearzot played on. Sadly, Italy came down to Earth with a bump very quickly. In the qualifying competition for Euro ’84, Bearzot’s side finished fourth in a group of five behind Romania, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. Just one win against Cyprus and three draws was all they had to show from their eight games, and though they qualified for the 1986 World Cup, their resurgence was cut short prematurely by France in the Round of 16.

Bearzot thereafter admitted defeat and relinquished his post as father figure of the Italian football team, never to coach again. He was made President of the FIGC, the main football coaching body in Italy, in 2002, a position he retained until 2005.

His death today robs Italian football of one of its great characters and a man who will forever be synonymous with one of the most glorious chapters in its history. A great coach and a wise man who understood football at its most basic level, he will be sadly missed by people the world over – not least those that saw his all-conquering World Cup side of 1982.

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