Italian sport: The history of Italy in a match
- WTI Magazine #128 Jun 20, 2020
Can a soccer match unite a divided nation, cement people of different ages, convince one nation to be stronger than another, remain in the memory of future generations, become a scene told for decades by writers, intellectuals, poets, filmmakers? Yes, it can.
It happened on June 17th, 1970, 50 years ago, in Mexico. The protagonists were Italy and Germany, two nations politically allied thirty years before with the two dictators Hitler and Mussolini, then became enemies in the Second World War. Two nations whose soccer rivalry started that very day, in Mexico City, in the Aztec Stadium, and it never ended. That day the "match of the century" was played, a challenge that even today all Italians simply remember as "Italia-Germania 4-3". A perpetual memory because it is handed down from father to son, generation after generation, from that distant 1970 to today.
On June 17th, 50 years ago, at 4 p.m. in Mexico City, midnight in Italy, the semi-final of the soccer World Cup began. Italy, the reigning European champion (in 1968 we won the first and only European title in our history) and Germany compete against each other. Italy made it to the semifinals with great effort, having played badly in previous matches. Germany is the front-runner.
The match will become an epic battle that hypnotizes the 102,444 spectators in the stadium and on television is followed "in apnoea" by 30 million Italians, as many Germans and the entire Mexican population. In Italy that match unites three generations of people, grandparents, fathers and children, in front of the television.
It was the first time in the history of a society that was still based on a patriarchal model: just two years earlier, in 1968, protests had begun from students and young people who wanted to live a different life from their parents. Young people rebelled against all the things their parents and grandparents loved, and soccer was one such thing. Moreover, Italy was in the midst of an economic boom that was wiping out the wounds of the Second World War. So the Italians were feeling successful and challenged in the production of cars, household appliances, construction of great works, especially the Germans, the enemies of the war who considered the Italians still a people of illiterates and peasants. The ingredients for a sporting and social revenge were all there. And that game changed the Italian society.
The final result increased the trust of the Italian people, making them feel like winners especially towards the Germans, the people who had tried to destroy Italy after September 1943. That victory helped the young people to dialogue with the elders of their family. It helped the politicians who had been divided for 25 years between pro-American and pro-Soviet Union, the soccer fans who had always been divided and even hated each other, it helped the Italians who had emigrated to the factories in Germany to feel like important people.
The "match of the century" has been remembered in many books, documentaries, poems, in a successful movie, songs, as well as their protagonists have become immortal heroes. That challenge was so hypnotic that even Mexicans still remember it. Outside the monumental stadium there is still a plaque with the words "The Aztec Stadium pays homage to the selections of Italy (4) and Germany (3), protagonists in the 1970 World Cup match of the century". And on the day of the match, in Tuxtla, 830 kilometers away from Mexico City, 23 prisoners, including some murderers, escape because the guards were hypnotized in front of the television to follow the match. On that day, there were also deaths from heart attacks, some Italians and some Germans.
An epic challenge, like "The rumble in the jungle" between Ali and Foreman, or that between the German Baron Gottfried von Cramm and the American proletarian Donald Budge in the Davis Cup semifinal at Wimbledon on July 20, 1937. Impossible challenges that had an important significance not only for sport, but for society as a whole. Challenges where you fight for your nation, for your political or religious ideal, to help bring people closer together. Exactly, epic challenges, such as that of June 17th, 1970 in Mexico, Italy-Germany 4-3.
From that day on and for the following decades, millions of Italians learned the formation of that team by heart. Albertosi, Burgnich, Facchetti, Cera, Rosato, Bertini, Mazzola, De Sisti, Domenghini, Boninsegna, Riva. Coach Valcareggi. And the name of the names, that of Gianni Rivera, who entered the field in the second half to replace Sandro Mazzola.
Mazzola and Rivera gave life to the soccer rivalry par excellence of all time in Italy. Sandro Mazzola, son of Valentino, the legendary player of the "Grande Torino", the unbeatable team that only fate managed to defeat (on May 4th 1949 the whole team died in a plane crash in Turin). Mazzola was a flag of the Internazionale di Milano, one of the strongest teams in Europe. Rivera, instead, was the most famous player in the history of Milan, the other legendary Milan team. The two had been rivals for many years in the Italian championship. And they had divided the fans' Italy when they played for the national team, because they were the two strongest players together with Riva, but the coach didn't let them play together because they didn't help each other and didn't love each other. On the field they were two opposites: Mazzola a gladiator, Rivera a slow player, very technical and tactical but with little grit. They were two stars who wanted glory all for themselves, and each had their own fans who defended them for their style of play. Half of Italy wanted Mazzola, half Rivera. It had already happened a few years earlier with two cyclists: Coppi, the progressive who broke the rules and became the idol of young people, and Bartali, the conservative Catholic beloved of the establishment.
The press, however, was almost all for Mazzola. Italy needed gladiators, not dancers! The debate between which of the two had to play that game had been going on for days. But in reality it had been going on for years, with coach Valcareggi often accused by the press of making Rivera play even though he didn't deserve it. Even though Rivera had won the Golden Ball in 1969, the highest award for a European player.
On June 17th 1970, the coach choose Mazzola. The journalists are happy, half of Italy is happy. The match begins and after only 8 minutes Boninsegna scored the 1-0 goal for Italy. The match becomes slow, ugly, without emotions. Italy defends itself, Germany attacks without vigor. The second half begins and Valcareggi satisfies the other half of Italy: out Mazzola, in Rivera. In the Italian houses there are those who rejoice and those who shout scandal. Everyone against everyone. "I knew what was going on in Italy and how journalists thought, it had always been like that every time I played in Mazzola's place,” Gianni Rivera told me a few years ago during an interview. Rivera is slow, it's his style of play, and firm in his position. He doesn't run very much. The match continues for 44 minutes as expected and Italy is now close to the victory that will take us to play the World Cup final against Brazil.
At the last minute of the game, however, Schnellinger, Germany's symbol player, scores the goal of the draw. The Italian team is destroyed. Strength is no longer there and morale is now under our feet. The first extra time half starts and from now on it will be like Wagner's Cavalcade of the Valkyries. In minute 94 Müller scores the 2-1 goal for Germany, apparently knocking Italy out for good. Four minutes later, however, Burgnich scores the 2-2 goal. One minute before the end of the first half, Gigi Riva, the great bomber, scores the 3-2 goal: Italy has recovered and takes the lead again. The second half begins and it's now a big confusion on the pitch. Everyone is playing at their best without thinking about tactics. In fifteen minutes the two teams play for victory and above all for the honor of their nation. At minute 110 Müller scores again and draws the match: it’s 3-3.
Italy restarts and in a few seconds the impossible happens. The ball is on the midfield, eleven touches between the Italian players without the Germans being able to intercept it, Rivera comes running from midfield to the opponent's area, receives the ball from Domenghini and immediately shoots an unstoppable goal for Maier, the German goalkeeper, who is beaten for the fourth time. It is the goal of the century because that will become the match of the century.
That's how it ends, 4-3 for Italy going into the final. Rivera is praised by his team-mates and all the Italians. Even if the coach wouldn't let him play the final against Brazil, we will lose 4-1 (Rivera will be sent on the pitch 6 minutes before the end, when there was nothing left to do). Italy celebrates all night long, the Italians huddle together, the different generations join in a big hug, Italy discovers that it is a power not only sporting. Italians understand that we are a strong people, that we do not give up and that we can beat even the Germans! The match of the century really changed Italian society. And still today the word "Italia-Germania 4-3" for every Italian means to be a fighter and a winner. Exactly 50 years have passed, and today it is more important than ever.