It was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end. The experiment of putting a club coaching revolutionary in charge of La Nazionale was about to come to a juddering halt. Arrigo Sacchi’s approach ultimately failed to translate to international football.
In fairness, he had come within a whisker of winning a World Cup in the USA but that seemed to owe more to Roberto Baggio’s heroics than any great choral displays like his Milan side had produced. More often than not, the Azzurri struggled to replicate anything close to what he had achieved at the Rossoneri. Euro ‘96 in England would be the coach’s last stand and he made it in typically bold and uncompromising style.
It is hard to credit nowadays - when most of Italy’s recent managers have come from the club scene - just what a change of trend Sacchi’s appointment was. The last such appointment had been Fulvio Bernardini in the 1970s. After that Club Italia turned to Enzo Bearzot, a man groomed for the job during a period at the helm of the Under 23 side. He was followed by Azeglio Vicini, another to come through the ranks at the Italian federation.
To turn to football’s most famous former shoe salesman was an event of seismic proportions. Many experts predicted from the outset that the methods which had won trophies galore at the San Siro could not do the same with players who met just a few times a year. Could the intense, asphyxiating approach adopted to dominate European club football do the same in the international game?
From memory, I would say the answer was no. There were glimpses from time to time that the Sacchi style was working but, more often than not, the team seemed to lurch from one near disaster to another. It occasionally felt that good results were being achieved despite the manager rather than because of him.
The start of Italy’s first major qualification campaign under the former Milan man is a game which sticks in my mind for that very sensation. Playing at home to Switzerland they were two goals behind midway through the first half. Only late strikes from Roberto Baggio and Stefano Eranio spared their blushes. Watching with my family, we rounded on a pessimistic cousin to pepper him with punches of relief.
Little could we have suspected that this would be the order of the day for the Sacchi years. They got things on track to qualify for the World Cup but that campaign, too, was one which lived on a knife-edge of elimination for most of the tournament. Italy sneaked through the group after defeat by the Republic of Ireland. They played another Baggio get out of jail card to squeeze past Nigeria. A narrow win over Spain in the battle of Luis Enrique’s bloody nose was followed by a triumph over Bulgaria which is still viewed with contempt in that particular nation. And then, of course, there was failure on penalties to Brazil in the final.
That competition failed to win over the doubters. There had been flashes of flowing play but, by and large, the Azzurri relied on individual heroics to progress. The European Nations campaign would be make or break for Sacchi.
Qualification was again the victim of a sluggish start. A draw with Slovenia, victory over Estonia and home defeat by Croatia left Italy’s participation in the balance. A run of four wins on the trot was enough to steady the ship but not to ultimately end up on top of the group. That honour went to Croatia, the Azzurri had to be happy to make it to England as a best runner-up. They had seven goals from Gianfranco Zola to thank for getting there.
The group draw for the final stages, however, would be a testing one. Germany, Czech Republic and Russia had all won their respective qualification campaigns. And yet Italy got off to a flyer at Anfield.
It was then Lazio striker Gigi Casiraghi who hit the right notes with a double to down the Russians. A team boasting the likes of Zola, Alessandro Del Piero and Demetrio Albertini was pretty pleasing on the eye. Maybe, just maybe, the manager had finally got the right mix. We really should have known better.
Sacchi, in his wisdom, decided to overhaul a winning team for the crucial clash with the Czech Republic. While the defence remained unchanged with Roberto Mussi, Luigi Apolloni, Billy Costacurta and skipper Paolo Maldini forming a solid back line, the midfield and attack was dismantled. Only Albertini kept his place with, most controversially, goal hero Casiraghi being benched. Dino Baggio, Diego Fuser, Enrico Chiesa, Roberto Donadoni and Fabrizio Ravanelli were the five new faces in the starting line-up.
If it was supposed to be a show of squad strength and astute resource management it backfired horribly. Within five minutes the Azzurri were behind to a Pavel Nedved strike and they struggled to recover. Chiesa brought the sides level but near the half-hour mark disaster struck. Apolloni was sent off and soon after Radek Bejbl restored the Czech lead. All the time, Casiraghi kicked his heels on the bench.
Image via Bundesliga Classic
He was eventually thrown into the fray near the hour mark to replace Ravanelli and, with 12 minutes to play, Zola took Chiesa’s place. But it was not enough to turn the game around and escape the feeling that Italy had shot themselves in the foot. From being in a glorious position to qualify, they now needed to beat Germany to progress. It felt as if Sacchi’s faith in his own ability had undermined any chance of winning the tournament.
Try as they might, they could not break down the eventual Euro ‘96 winners with a saved Zola penalty the closest they came to getting the win they needed. Even when Germany went down to 10 men they could not convert their chances. But the underlying emotion among the tifosi was that the damage had been done against the Czech Republic five days earlier.
Win that game and the Azzurri might have played out a bloodless draw with Germany which would have allowed both teams to progress. Instead, Sacchi’s tinkering was blamed for crushing any confidence produced by their opening victory. They were packing their bags at their Cheshire base and heading home with dreams of Wembley destroyed. It was little consolation that their group conquerors - the Czech Republic and Germany - went on to meet again in the final.
And that meddling piece of management pretty much brought the curtain down on their coach too. Sacchi took charge of a couple of World Cup qualifiers and a friendly defeat to Bosnia Herzegovina before the call of a return to Milan proved to much to resist. It would not bring back the glory days of his first spell.
As for the Azzurri, they went back to more tried and tested coaching processes to find his successor. Cesare Maldini had been cutting his teeth with the Under 21s for a good while before getting the top job. He would be the last, however, of the real “federation men” to get the post. Since then they have always gone for people with recent club management experience. Few of them, however, have been brave enough to try the kind of drastic team selection which ended in disaster against the Czech Republic some 17 years ago.