July 5 marks 35 years since Italy and Brazil played against each other in a classic encounter at the 1982 FIFA World Cup.
The Azzurri triumphed 3-2 over the Selecao in a match considered to be one of the best football matches ever but I will go a step further and say that it was the greatest game played in the history of the sport.
Two matches are often rated higher. In one particular list by Planet World Cup, Italy v West Germany from the 1970 World Cup and West Germany v France from the 1982 tournament are considered to be better than Italy v Brazil but I do not believe that to be the case.
Italy’s 4-3 victory over the West Germans after extra time in the Mexico 70 semi-finals is referred to as the “Match of the Century” but as great as it was, there were substantial amounts of the game that were boring. If Karl-Heinz Schnellinger had not equalised, the clash probably would have been labelled as a boring 1-0 win to the Italians.
When West Germany drew 3-3 with France before beating them 5-4 on penalties in the España 82 semi-finals, it was considered to be a dramatic game to watch. Watching it in hindsight, viewers do not get the same adrenalin as viewing it live, and then you realise that for all the drama, there were some dour spells during the game.
Italy v Brazil in the Second Phase of the 1982 World Cup was an exciting game from start to finish. Both teams had technically gifted players and they could have and probably should have scored more than five goals at the Estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona.
On paper it was meant to be a contrast of styles. Italian football at the time was synonymous with catenaccio, the defensive tactic which involved defending in numbers and going to play for a 0-0 draw or 1-0 win, and Brazil was known for its jogo bonito. The Selecao played a cautious style of football in 1974 and 1978 but the 1982 team played in the same manner as the victorious 1970 World Cup side.
Italy qualified unconvincingly for the Second Phase, drawing all three matches in Group A and progressed ahead of Cameroon because they had scored one more goal. Brazil had flourished in the First Round, winning all three games in Group F and scored 10 goals in the process.
Both teams were drawn in Group 3 with reigning world champions Argentina, with the Azzurri defeating the Albiceleste 2-1 and the Selecao beating their South American rivals 3-1. Scoring the extra goal was vital because it meant that Brazil only needed a draw and Italy had to win.
Although Italian football was largely considered to be defensive, the main thing the national team had in common with the clubs was the formation. Coach Enzo Bearzot used the zona mista, which was an asymmetrical 4-3-3 formation, otherwise the Azzurri tactician had encouraged a more attacking style since he became coach in 1975.
At the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Italy had impressed in the first group stage with its proactive approach – the 1-0 win against the hosts was an exception – but the team faded as the tournament progressed and finished fourth. At the beginning of the 1982 edition, the Italians were unconvincing and although improvements were seen against the Argentines, a third World Cup looked unrealistic.
Once Italy v Brazil started at 5:15 pm local time, those pre-match predictions counted for little. Both teams attacked each other and it was the Italians who opened the scoring after five minutes.
The ball was played out of defence and Bruno Conti went for a run in midfield. He crossed the ball with the outside of his left boot to Antonio Cabrini, who advanced from left-back. His curling cross found Paolo Rossi, who made a late run into the penalty area and headed the ball into the net.
Rossi had been suspended for two years after the 1980 Totonero match-fixing scandal and looked underwhelming in the previous four World Cup games but he had suddenly came to live.
Francesco Graziani nearly made it 2-0 after Rossi back-heeled to him but he ballooned his shot over the bar. If Graziani was like future Italian stars Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, or Gianfranco Zola, he could have curled that shot into a top corner instead of blasting high into the sky.
Serginho missed a sitter for the Brazilians before Socrates beat Dino Zoff at the near post in the 12th minute. In the 25th minute, Cerezo played a casual pass in defence, and Rossi reacted quickly to race towards goal and shot inside the semi-circle to make it 2-1.
Brazil pushed hard for an equaliser but 40-year-old goalkeeper Dino Zoff was in inspiring form. The Azzurri could have made it 3-1 in the second half but Rossi shot agonisingly wide after receiving a through-ball from Graziani.
The Selecao did get their deserved equaliser in the 68th minute, when Socrates dribbled past Conti and passed to Falcao, who calmly took five touches and struck a thunderous left-foot shot past Zoff.
Tele Santana encouraged his team to keep attacking but the Brazilian coach probably did not expect the Italians to have any more energy left inside of them. Bearzot’s team chased for the winner and duly got it.
Italy got a corner in the 75th minute. Conti’s corner from the right was headed down by Socrates but Marco Tardelli managed to swing his left leg at the ball and Rossi deflected the ball into the net to get his hat-trick.
Surprisingly enough, the Italians went for a fourth goal and they thought they had got it. Giancarlo Antongnoni started the counter-attack and his long pass found Rossi, who then passed to Gabriele Oriali. Oriali switched the ball across the penalty area and Antognoni side-footed the ball into the net.
The Italian playmaker was onside but the goal was controversially disallowed. If Brazil had equalised, that moment would have been heavily scrutinised. The Selecao thought they had equalised when Socrates dribbled around Zoff and scored from a tight angle but it was correctly ruled offside.
Zoff had one more save left in him and he displayed cat-like reflexes to deny Oscar from a header in the final minute. After he kicked the ball away, Israeli referee Abraham Klein blew for the final whistle.
Italy progressed to the semi-finals, beating Poland 2-0, and then defeated West Germany 3-1 in the final to win the World Cup for the third time and it was the first one since 1938.
Brazil had lament on what could have been. Some Brazilians had seen it as the day football died but it was proof that football was not just about attacking and aesthetics. You need to practical too.
Not many people talk about it, but it was a match in which Italian football showed that there was more to it than just defending. The Azzurri were confident on the ball and arguably created more dangerous chances than the Selecao.
There might have been matches with more drama and controversy but Italy 3-2 Brazil was match where the football smarts, artistry, and technique were on show. For those reasons, I rate it as the greatest game ever.