Welcome back to Bleacher Report's continuing series of Italian World Cup Rewinds. We've been through a fairly bleak period in Azzurri history in our last few editions, but today's edition brings a look at the moment when things turned around and Italy once again rose toward the top of the international game.
The game would become known to history as The Match of the Century—and it's still regarded as the finest soccer match ever played.
The 1970 World Cup was the first one not staged in Europe or South America. Mexico was given the bid over its only competition, Argentina. Advances in communications technology saw the games broadcast live around the world for the first time, as well as the first color broadcasts.
Mexico and defending champions England qualified automatically. The remaining 14 spots were divided thusly: eight for Europe, three for South America, one for Africa, one for CONCACAF and one between Asia and Oceania. Africa was guaranteed a spot in the finals for the first time after the Confederation of African Football boycotted the entire 1966 qualifying process, a protest against their being forced into a playoff with Asia and Oceania for a single spot.
Even with Africa now guaranteed a spot in the tournament, political intrigue continued to show its face during qualifying.
North Korea, 1966 quarter-finalists and conquerors of Italy, withdrew from qualification after refusing to play Israel. The Israelis qualified for their only World Cup after overcoming Australia in the final round of qualification. It was the last major tournament Israel would qualify for before their move to UEFA for political reasons.
CONCACAF qualification required several playoffs on neutral ground. The three games between Honduras and El Salvador saw massive amounts of fan violence and exacerbated the strained relationship between the two countries. On the same day as the third and final match in Mexico City, El Salvador dissolved diplomatic relations with Honduras, beginning the four-day conflict often known as the Football War.
El Salvador eventually defeated Haiti in the final qualifying round to reach its first World Cup.
Political considerations were present in the final draw as well. FIFA had to ensure that Israel and Morocco were kept apart for the group stage after the Muslim nation threatened to withdraw if they were forced to play the Jewish state. For the first time, a version of the modern geographical pot system was used to determine the groupings.
It had been 32 years since Italy had progressed beyond the first round of the World Cup. The glory days of Vittorio Pozzo were long since past. The Superga air disaster had ruined the first of the postwar national teams, and the team had been humiliated by North Korea in 1966.
The task of putting the Azzurri back among the elite was entrusted to Ferruccio Valcareggi. Valcareggi had been joint-manager with legendary Inter boss Helenio Herrera after Edmondo Fabbri's sacking in 1966, but by '67 he occupied the manager's chair by himself. A year later he led Italy to their first (and only) European Championship, positioning the Italians as potential favorites in the World Cup two years later.
The altitude in Mexico had brought concerns that the tournament would be a low-scoring one. That expectation was unfounded throughout the tournament as a whole—the tournament average of 2.97 goals per game remains a record—but that wasn't the case in Group 2.
Indeed, the Italians won the group despite only scoring one goal—a 10th-minute strike by Angelo Domenghini in their opening contest against Sweden.
Goalless draws against Uruguay and Israel followed, but in the days when a win only garnered two points no one was able to catch them. Uruguay slipped through as group runners-up on goal difference after tying Sweden with three points. For the first time since 1938, Italy had made it past the World Cup's opening round.
Their reward for winning the group was a matchup with hosts Mexico. The Mexicans had been ranked second in Group 1 after a flat-footed tie with the Soviet Union necessitated the drawing of lots.
The hosts took the lead in the 13th minute through Jose Luis Gonzalez, but an own goal by defender Javier Guzman saw the game go to the half at 1-1. The Italians then dominated the second half and scored three times in a 13-minute span—a brace by Gigi Riva bookended a Gianni Rivera strike. The victory sent them to their first semifinal since they won it all in '38.
Their opponents would be West Germany. The Germans had won Group 4 over Bulgaria, Peru and Morocco, then had come back from a 2-0 deficit to beat England 3-2 in extra time in a rematch of the '66 final. The team that would face Italy would be a tired one.
The Italians marched into the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City wearing their traditional blue shirts and white shorts. The Germans were in their traditional white shirts and black shorts. The referee was Arturo Yamasaki Maldonado of Mexico.
When German great Franz Beckenbauer was informed that the match had been ranked as the best ever by a collaboration of The Telegraph and World Soccer in 2007, Beckenbauer told the latter (via the Telegraph): "What people forget is how ordinary the first 90 minutes were. It was the 30 minutes of extra time that was so extraordinary."
Ordinary is the perfect term for the majority of regulation time. Roberto Boninsegna played a one-two pass with Gigi Riva and snapped a shot past Sepp Maier from the edge of the penalty arc.
The Germans attacked Enrico Albertosi's goal hard after falling behind, but the Italians clung to their lead—though they fell further and further back in the process.
Gerd Muller—who had scored two hat tricks in the group stage—and Franz Beckenbauer both threatened as the first half wore on. The Germans' first real chance to equalize before the break, however, came off the boot of an Italian. Mario Bertini sliced the ball towards his own net in a scramble to clear in the middle of the box and saw the ball whiz just over the bar.
Albertosi was called to make his first major save soon after when Muller fired on the turn, but the Italian netminder was up to the task. He then tipped a wicked deflection over the bar for another corner.
Germany continued to push for their equalizer when the teams changed ends. German captain Uwe Seeler missed wide of the post, then hit a bicycle kick that went wide to the left as well. Despite their efforts, most of Germany's shots early in the half flew wide or harmlessly into the arms of an ever-busy Albertosi.
As the half wore on, a scramble in the box saw Wolfgang Overath clip the bar from inside the penalty area.
Late in the half came a key moment in the game. Beckenbauer was powering his way towards the box when he was cynically bowled over by Pierluigi Cera. Referee Maldonado crucially judged the contact to have come just before Beckenbauer entered the box. The Germans were furious at being denied a penalty—and their misery was compounded when the resulting free kick came to nothing.
Beckenbauer severely damaged his shoulder on the play, but with Germany out of substitutions the legendary midfielder gritted his teeth and kept going rather than let his team go down a man.
Maldonado's decisions again bailed the Italians out of jail not long after, when he refused to point to the spot when Seeler was hauled down in the box.
Germany became more and more desperate. Maier started to become the only man left in his end of the field. Seeler had another penalty appeal denied. When Albertosi accidentally kicked a ball off of Siggi Held, he had to chase the ball back to his own line and only just prevented Muller from completing a simple tap-in by sticking out a foot.
It was looking like it simply wouldn't be Germany's night—especially when Seeler's free header off a corner was met with a flying save by Albertosi.
Maldonado then finally made a decision that benefited the Germans. In the days before stoppage time was shown to the world on the substitution board, it was solely up to the discretion of the ref to keep going. Some observers noted just how much of it the Mexican allowed.
It was in the very last minute of this added time that Jurgen Grabowski threw in a desperation cross that was incredibly met by full-back Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who tapped it into the net to equalize.
"Schnellinger, of all people!" exclaimed German TV commentator Ernst Huberty as the Germans mobbed the defender. It was indeed a rare thing to see—in 47 international appearances this would be the only goal he ever scored. It was all the more ironic considering the fact that Schnellinger played 284 of his 387 career club matches Italy's Serie A with Mantova, Roma and AC Milan.
The goal sent proceedings to extra time—the second time in a row for the Germans. Beckenbauer emerged from the team huddle with his right arm strapped to his chest.
The first chance of extra time came, predictably, for Germany, when Reinhard "Stan" Libuda crossed to Muller, who was denied by another incredible Albertosi save.
Muller finally scored a hard-earned goal four minutes into the extra period when he pounced on a mistake by Fabrizio Poletti. The ball squirted just past a despairing Albertosi and in for a 2-1 German lead.
Given how utterly dominant Germany had been since Boninsegna's goal, one could be forgiven for giving the Italians up for dead—especially when Grabowski nearly doubled the lead three minutes later. Then, in the 98th minute, the Germans shot themselves in the foot.
An Italian free kick came over the top and was met by Held, who inadvertently chested the ball straight into the path of Tarcisio Burgnich. The Inter man—who hadn't scored an international goal in four years and would never do so again—made no mistake from 10 yards. Incredibly, the game was knotted up again.
A minute before the halfway point of extra time Domenghini was sent through on the left by Gianni Rivera. The winger delivered the ball to the feet of Gigi Riva, who took two touches to turn Schnellinger around before slotting home past Maier. Despite having been dominated for the vast majority of the match, Italy was again in the lead.
Even before the halftime whistle Seeler was on the attack again, but his shot at full stretch was dealt with easily by Albertosi.
The German captain was back at it when the teams changed ends on a free kick from the leftmost edge of the penalty area, but Albertosi made yet another highlight reel save. On the ensuing corner Seeler headed the ball towards goal, where Muller was waiting to help it along with a diving header and tie the game again.
The Germans were again delirious with joy, but that joy would last less than 60 seconds.
Poletti received the ball shortly after kickoff and fired a ball to Boninsegna, who pulled the ball across the box to Rivera to strike from right behind the penalty spot, putting Italy up for the third time.
By this point you would have expected more fireworks, but the Italians were able to run the last nine minutes off the clock. They had gone into the tournament having failed to advance past the first round in 32 years. Now they were heading to their third final.
The thrilling semifinal had left the Azzurri utterly exhausted. Facing one of the best World Cup sides ever in the final, the Italians went down 1-0 to an 18th-minute goal by Pele. Boninsegna equalized on 37 minutes, but the Brazilians finally overwhelmed Italy in the second half, scoring three times in the last 24 minutes to claim a 4-1 win and their third title.
West Germany had played two consecutive extra-time games but managed to beat Uruguay in the third-place game on a 26th-minute goal by Overath. Two years later they won the European Championship and followed that with their second World Cup victory on home soil in 1974.
Ferruccio Valcareggi coached Italy for four more years but never matched the success of his first four. He failed to qualify for the 1972 European Championship—although this was not a massive failing given that the tournament consisted of only four teams at the time.
Less forgivable was his failure to make it out of the group stage at the World Cup in West Germany four years later. He was sacked and replaced by Fulvio Bernardini.
Karl-Heinz Schnellinger played four more years for AC Milan, winning the Coppa Italia twice. He picked up his last international cap in 1971. He retired in 1975 after a year back home in Germany with Tennis Borussia Berlin. He currently lives in the suburbs of Milan.
Mexican soccer officials placed a plaque at the Estadio Azteca to commemorate the amazing game that took place there on June 17, 1970.