The Italian National Team - A Thrilling History of Near Football Perfection

Roberto Mancini, Allianz Stadium, and Gianluigi Buffon, the Stadio Olimpico, the number 4, and the year 1910 have a lot in common than you can ever imagine. All have an uncanny relationship with the Italian national team, the Azzurri.

Italian flag
The team played its first official match in 1910 against France at the Arena Civica, winning 6-2. It ranks among the most successful national teams in the 91-year history of the FIFA World Cup. It has won the trophy four times. Nicknamed the Azzurri (or Gli Azzurri), which loosely translates to the Blues, the team counts the Allianz Stadium as one of its many home arenas. The Azzurri's coach since 2018 is Roberto Manchini, while Gianluigi Buffon has made the most appearances (176).

Early Exploits

Any meaningful conversation about the leading footballing national teams must rope in the Azzurri, and for obvious reasons. Having won four World Cup titles, it ties with Germany and is only second to Brazil, which leads the tally with five championships.

The outstanding achievements stretch over more than a century and include excellence in both continental and international platforms. However, the good results have come sometimes on the backdrop of monumental upsets.

Here is a detailed look...

The Italian National team managed its first notable triumph in 1928 when they emerged third in the Summer Olympics. They had to wait for another two editions of the games to win their first gold when they beat Austria 2-1 in the finals.

Between 1928 and 1936, the Azzurri took part in and won the European International Cup twice.

World Cup Participation and Glory

The team was invited to the inaugural World Cup competition in 1930 in Uruguay. However, the federation declined the offer, missing the opportunity of appearing in the honors roll of the tournament's pioneer teams.

Italy hosted the second edition of the tournament. It made the first appearance with a squad led by Giuseppe Meazza, a legendary player who is also considered the greatest Italian player of all generations. The team's coach was Vittorio Pozzo.

The team won the tournament in their debut appearance. On the way to the trophy, Italy beat the U.S. 7-1, drew 1-1 with Spain before beating them 1-0 in a rematch. They thrashed Austria 1-0 in the semi-finals before beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the finals.

The prolific Meazza was declared the player of the tournament.

Italy beefed up the team and came to the 1938 edition of the World Cup even stronger. With the likes of the young and talented Silvio Piola, the Azzurri beat Norway, France, Brazil, and Hungary to win the second consecutive title.

The Winds of the 1950s and 1960s

World War II (WWII) led to the suspension of almost all major sporting events. It took another 12 years after the 1938 World Cup before the team could play in another major tournament. However, disaster struck in 1949, just months before the resumption of major competition. The entire Torino football team perished in a plane accident in the infamous Superga air disaster.

The accident impacted Italy severely because Torino players were the bedrock of the Azzurri. The Italian team had a hard time establishing the previous dominance. They crashed out of the 1950 and 1954 editions of the tournament in the group stage and missed the 1958 edition entirely.

Despite assembling a passably talented team during the 1962 and 1966 games, they were still knocked out at the group stages. Their performance in the European Championships was equally dismal as they missed out on the first two events in 1960 and 1964.

They did well in the 1968 continental championships and carried the good form to the 1970 World Cup. Led by Luigi Riva and Gianni Rivera, among other talented players, the team advanced to the finals but lost against Brazil.

The Fairy Tales of the 1970s and the 1980s

The 1974 World Cup was less rewarding for the Blues. They got knocked out at the group stages thanks to a surprise thrashing by Poland. However, with the arrival of fresh talents such as Paolo Rossi, they got a chance to reinvent themselves during the 1978 tournament, winning all three group stage games. Notably, they were the only team that beat the hosts and eventual winners, Argentina.

However, the tides turned when they lost to the Netherlands in the second round. The Azzurri finished as the third runners-up after falling to Brazil. Legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff was blamed for much of Italy's misfortunes during that edition of the tournament.

In 1980, the Totonero, a match-fixing scandal, rocked the Italian soccer circles. The impropriety led to the suspension of several players, including Rossi, Stefano Pellegrini, goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi, and Giuseppe Savoldi. Overall, two football managers and 20 players playing for Serie A clubs were suspended for varying periods. Besides, the scandal marred the preparations for the 1982 World Cup. However, Rossi managed to rejoin the national team just as the tournament began, helping guide the Azzurri to another successful campaign.

His return had minimal impact at first. The team did dismally in the group stage, drawing in all three matches. However, their fortunes turned in the second round, where they beat Argentina 2-1 before thumping Brazil 3-2.

In the semi-final match, Italy beat Poland 2-0 with Rossi scoring all the goals. The win set them against West Germany in the final game, which the Azzurri won 3-1 to claim the third title. During the tournament, Rossi, who had scored a hat trick against Brazil, won both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball.

Italy came to the 1986 World Cup with minimal expectation. The pessimistic approach got them as far as the round of 16, where they fell to France. The uninspiring performance sent the national federal to recruit fresh blood, bringing in Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, and Gianluca Vialli, among other players.

The Fortune of the 1990s

Bel Paese got rights to host the 1990 World Cup. They played thrilling football, going all the way to the semi-finals, where mighty Argentina knocked them out in a penalty shootout. They emerged as the second runners-up after beating England in the third-place playoff.

Surprisingly, Salvatore Schillaci, who started all games from the bench, was voted the player of the tournament. He scored in six of the seven games he played.

Boosted by the maturity of Roberto Baggio, the Azzurri came to the 1994 World Cup with much hope. However, they surprisingly underperformed in the group stage, losing to Ireland in their first game and only scrapping through to the next round.

Baggio and company rediscovered themselves in a surprising twist, beating Nigeria, Spain, and Bulgaria to set up a final faceoff with Brazil. Baggio hauled five goals during the stretch of reinvention, but he picked a hamstring injury in the process. The final match against Brazil was a scintillating duel. However, it ended in a draw, prompting a penalty shootout. Sadly, Baggio threw the decisive penalty and rewarded Brazil with the title.

The 1998 World Cup brought mixed fortunes for the Azzurri. Despite some good plays here and equal bad shows there, Italy never got further than the quarter-finals, where they met and lost to France. Their showing in the 2002 World Cup was even worse. South Korea knocked them out despite pundits pitting them as the favorites to win the tourney.

After a slump that characterized the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, the Italian Football Federation gave the reins to Marcello Lippi. In 2006, he took a well-coordinated team to the World Cup. Many pundits believed the Azzurri were the tournament's favorite.

They beat Ghana and the Czech Republic and drew with the U.S. in the group stage. In the following phases, the team mauled Australia, Ukraine, and Germany, keeping a clean sheet in all the encounters before setting up a meeting with France in the final match. The controversial game ended in a 1-1 draw but not before Zinedine Zidane was red-carded for head-butting Marco Materazzi. The Azzurri won the ensuing penalty shootout to claim their fourth World Cup title.

After the 2006 finals, their form dipped, going out in the first round in both the 2010 and 2014 events and missing the 2018 tournament.

European Championship

The Azzurri broke out of the slump occasioned by the Superga air disaster, in 1968, at their first continental championship appearance. They got the rights to host the tournament after excelling during the qualifiers stage.

The Azzurri drew 0-0 with the Soviet Union in the semis but advanced after a coin toss. In the finals, they again drew with Yugoslavia. However, they won the rematch 2-0, laying claim of a major trophy in 30 years.

In 1980, Italy hosted the European Championship for the second time. They beat England and drew with Spain and Belgium, setting the stage for a third and fourth runners-up playoff, which they lost to Czechoslovakia in the penalty shootout.

They did not qualify for Euro 1984. However, after an infusion of fresh talent, the team's fortunes turned with the new squad that made it to the Euro 1988. Despite ending up in a tough group of West Germany, Denmark, and Spain, the Azzurri won two games and drew in one, qualifying for the semi-finals.

However, against a more experienced team like the Soviet Union, Italy was a minnow. They lost the closely-contested match 0-2.

The following years saw modest showing in the tournament. After missing entirely from the 1992 edition, they managed to qualify for the 1996 event only to go out in the group stage. However, in 2000, they fielded a strong squad comprised of the emerging star Francesco Totti and some seasoned players such as Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi.

The Blues won all the group stage matches before overcoming Romania and the Netherlands to set up a final with France. Despite leading 1-0 from the onset of the second half, France equalized during the dying minutes of the game to send it to extra time, where France's David Trezeguet scored the golden goal.

Italy did not advance past the group stage at the Euro 2004 despite collecting five points from the three games. The three-way tie that featured Sweden, and Denmark, the other group members, saw the latter two progress on goal difference.

At the Euro 2008, the Azzurri sailed to the quarter-finals. However, they were eliminated after a penalty shootout. The same fate befell them eight years later. However, the 2012 edition of the games was a chance to record a successful showing.

After an average performance in the group stage where they faced Croatia and Spain, they bruised England in a match that was decided by penalties. The defeat saw them set the stage for a semi-final match against Germany, thrashing them 2-0. Mario Balotelli scored a brace in the game.

They faced Spain in the finals. However, their vigor could not stretch past the semis. La Furia Roja took an early lead and control for much of the game, thumping the Azzurri 4-0.

Accolades at a Glance

The Italian national team has been almost a permanent fixture in the international football fixtures scene. They have participated in the World Cup 18 times; only Brazil and Germany have taken part in the tournament more times than the Azzurri.

They have participated in the UEFA European Football Championships 9 times. Aside from the four World Cup titles in 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006, the team won the European Championship once in 1968, the same number of times it has lifted the Olympic football tournament. Italy was the first team to defend a World Cup title.

Italian team with Buffon, Pirlo etc

The Most Capped Players

Aside from Gianluigi Buffon, other players who have appeared for the team more than 115 times are Fabio Cannavaro (136), Paolo Maldini (126), Daniele De Rossi (117), and Gianluca Vialli (116).

Luigi Riva leads the top scorers' log with 35 goals, followed by Giuseppe Meazza (33) and Silvio Piola (30). Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero close the best five log with 27 goals apiece.

NOTE! This article was written before the postponed Euro 2020 that was played in 2021. As everyone knows, Italy won the Euro 2020 after beating England in the final at Wembley. In this Euro we did see a new Italy under the guidance of Roberto Mancini, an Italian team that played great and attractive attacking based football.
Joe David was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria and writes more than good about football, preferably with a focus on African players and the success of African national teams on the football field.