There are few international teams that have captured the hearts of their fans as completely as the Italy side that travelled to Spain for the 1982 World Cup. That team and its accomplishments are revered more than any other Azzurri vintage, viewed as the most complete squad the peninsula has ever sent to football’s premier competition.
The reasons for this are fairly tangible, from the end of a 44-year wait to once again lift the game’s foremost trophy to the unexpected manner of the victory. Much like it had in 2006, Italian football had been shrouded in controversy following the Totonero scandal, which saw many of its best players and biggest clubs punished.
Milan and Lazio were relegated to Serie B for their involvement, while Paolo Rossi was handed a two-year ban. The striker had impressed in the 1978 World Cup, registering three goals and four assists as he helped Italy to a place in the semi-finals, and his absence was keenly felt by all concerned.
Italy coach Enzo Bearzot never abandoned Rossi, and he took him along to the World Cup despite protests from fans and journalists concerned about his lack of fitness. He had played just three competitive matches for Juventus and looked nothing like the clinical finisher who had been one of Serie A’s top scorers before the scandal broke.
He would, like the Azzurri in general, ghost through the opening group stage, but came alive when the level of competition rose considerably. Their progress was incredible to witness, but a number of factors must first be quantified in order to compare them to the contenders at this summer’s World Cup.
Chief among them are the levels of fitness and endurance of that 1982 squad, as without accepting they must be considered equal, the whole debate is rendered meaningless. The intervening 32 years have seen radical changes to training and medical practices that those players never experienced, but for this conversation it must be imagined they had.
Assessing the Azzurri of that era, it is clear that captain and goalkeeper Dino Zoff was an exceptional talent, one of the greatest ever to stand between the posts. He had already turned 40 years old when the tournament began, testament to his excellent conditioning during a time when many players neglected their health.
Excellent when the pressure was highest, Zoff was “capable of staying calm during the toughest and the most exhilarating moments,” according to an interview Bearzot gave to FIFA.com. He would undoubtedly held the very best attacks at bay, and the collection of defenders ahead of him remains one of the finest ever assembled.
Both Beppe Bergomi and Antonio Cabrini excelled at the finals. The former was merely 18 years old in 1982, and forced his way into the first XI during the knockout stages. The Inter defender went on to amass over 80 caps and represent Italy in two further World Cups before retiring in 1999.
On the opposite flank, Cabrini was a mainstay of the formidable Juventus defence of that era. He had cemented his place four years earlier, helping the Azzurri to the 1978 semi-final before going one better in the next World Cup.
He missed a penalty in the 1982 Final, but that would not damage his team’s chances and he was once again a standout performer. Between these two great full-backs were two more members of Giovanni Trapattoni’s all-conquering Bianconeri side, men who are still regarded as true giants of the global game.
Claudio Gentile was the immovable object, a rugged man marker whose marshalling of Diego Maradona at the 1982 World Cup—shown here—is an indelible memory of all Italian fans. Like Cabrini, he was a major part of the success enjoyed by both his club and country, a defender very few attackers ever managed to slip past easily.
His partner was the flawless Juventus captain Gaetano Scirea, quite simply the greatest central defender his nation has ever produced. The sweeper was so much more than a stopper, stepping out to help create goals when his teams needed them most.
Scirea won 78 caps for the Azzurri, and it is difficult to recall him making mistakes in any of them, such was the sheer quality and class he possessed. So good were those players in the regular XI that even Franco Baresi never set foot on the field at the finals, the Milan legend adding serious depth to Bearzot’s squad.
In midfield, the coach could choose from a plethora of weapons, including pure wingers like Bruno Conti and Franco Causio who could stretch out the field to create space for others. Both created chances for their team-mates and scored goals themselves, the kind of players who would thrive even in today’s fast-paced matches.
Bearzot could also rely on the skill and guile of Fiorentina icon Giancarlo Antognoni, a creative midfielder who possessed a wonderful touch and an incredible range of passing. Beside him, Marco Tardelli provided the steel in the centre of the pitch, an all-action midfielder who constantly harassed opponents as he sought to regain possession.
He also weighed in with the key goal in the final—shown above—his tearful screams of joy one of the World Cup’s most memorable moments. The attack saw Golden Boot winner Paolo Rossi steal the headlines, with his goals enough to see him win the Ballon d'Or in 1982.
Alessandro Altobelli would also net in the showpiece game, showing there was more to fear than just the in-form “Pablito.” This heady blend of players served the Azzurri well, allowing Bearzot to shape his line-up to the opposition and give his side the best possible chance of victory.
The combination of the players and coach made the 1982 Italian side among the very best, and looking at how the best teams of 2014 have performed, it is difficult to see any having the overall quality to defeat them. They were almost impenetrable in defence, had both superiority and variety in midfield and possessed the attacking threat to score in any circumstance.
In short, that particular Azzurri side was simply better, deeper and more talent-laden than any of their imaginary modern-day rivals taking part in the current World Cup. From Zoff in goal to Rossi up front, they possessed 11 men who have become legends of the game, while even the bench was filled with truly great players.
Were they to somehow be transported into today’s game and pitted against the teams in Brazil, it is difficult to imagine any outcome other than seeing Dino Zoff once again lift the golden trophy aloft.