Where Does Italy's 2014 World Cup Campaign Rank in Their All-Time Performances?
Italy are one of world football’s most dominant sides: They are feared across the globe for both the talent within their squad and the storied history of the peninsula’s national team.
With four World Cup triumphs, only Brazil can claim to have lifted the game’s most prestigious trophy more times than the Azzurri, making their recent troubles even more startling.
Despite reaching the final of Euro 2012, their adventure this summer ended just as prematurely as their last World Cup appearance—crashing out in the group stage just as they did in South Africa four years ago.
By losing two matches—beating only England in their opening fixture—the current tournament ranks among the worst ever display by Italy on the global stage.
With back-to-back wins in 1934 and 1938, the nation quickly established themselves as front-runners, while incredible triumphs in 1982 and 2006 cemented that position. As such, the list of failures by the Azzurri is shorter than most, the contrast with these current failings starker than ever.
Over the following pages, Italy’s worst World Cup displays are ranked and judged in terms of how poor, how surprising and how unexpected each were.
6. The Most Valiant Of Runners-Up (1970)
Aside from their four triumphs, Italy’s best World Cup performance undoubtedly came in the 1970 edition, when they finished second to a wonderful Brazilian side featuring the likes of Pele, Rivellino, and Tostao.
That version of the Selecao is viewed as one the greatest of all time, demolishing the Azzurri 4-1 in an extremely one-sided final held in Mexico’s Aztec Stadium.
Before that, however, Italy saw off the host nation in the quarter-final, advancing to what would become known as the “Game of the Century” in the next round. Roberto Boninsegna’s eighth minute opener appeared to have sealed victory for the Azzurri over their German opponents before Karl-Heinz Schnellinger equalised in the dying seconds.
Opposition captain Franz Beckenbauer’s fractured collarbone added to the drama, and he was forced to play on in a sling as Germany had no substitutions remaining. Five further goals followed as strikes from Tarcisio Burgnich, Gigi Riva and Gianni Rivera eventually proved to be enough for a 4-3 victory that will live long in the memory.
They may have not lifted the trophy, but they were most certainly the finest Italy team never to do so.
5. Home Discomfort (1990)
Eight years on from their unlikely 1982 triumph, Italy would host the tournament and put on an excellent display, led by the goal scoring exploits of Toto Schillaci. The Sicilian striker would end the competition as the Golden Boot winner, his six goals enough to help the Azzurri reach the semi-final.
A resolute defence saw them get there without conceding a single goal, making Claudio Canniga’s second-half header in the semi-final difficult to swallow. The deadlock remained, and Diego Maradona’s side would triumph on penalties.
Italy would beat England in the third-place play-off, making this another valiant display where the Azzurri had failed to emerge victorious.
4. Spot-Kick Agony (1994)
If there was a feeling of inevitability about Brazil’s march to the 1970 World Cup triumph, the 1994 edition would perhaps be their most surprising win. Dull and functional, this version had none of the flair of their illustrious predecessors, their style encapsulated by their captain, Dunga.
The defensive midfielder broke up opposition plays and made short, simple passes, an entirely different player to Brazil greats. Roberto Baggio, on the other hand, was a thrilling force of nature in the tournament, carrying the Azzurri to the final almost single-handedly.
It was a strange twist of fate that saw him blaze his spot-kick over the bar in the shootout, a dour final decided by the finest player’s misfortune.
3. Post-War Slump (1950-1966)
If the aforementioned tournaments were unlucky, the misfortunes to strike Italian football immediately after World War II would prove almost insurmountable. The loss of the great Torino side of the 1940s struck the Azzurri hard, many of those players having been long-time regulars for the national team.
Discussed here on the FIFA website, their deaths meant Italy had to completely rebuild, suffering first-round exits in the 1950, 1954 and 1962 events. They failed to qualify for the only time in their history in 1958, and they suffered even greater ignominy in the 1966 edition.
They lost to North Korea at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, Pak Doo-ik earning a place in history as he scored the only goal of the game to compound the post-war misery on the peninsula.
2. Knockout Round Nightmares (1986, 1998, 2002)
If that 1966 humiliation hit Italy hard, the losses between their 1982 triumph and that glorious 2006 campaign would be even worse. France would vanquish the holders in Mexico in '86 and see them off on home soil in 1998 on the way to their own memorable victory.
The 2002 event would see echoes of history, as South Korea eliminated them in the last 16, with the performance of referee Byron Moreno widely criticised, per Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph. Italy once again returned home humiliated, but worse was yet to come.
1. The Worst of Times (2010, 2014)
Those aforementioned defeats were poor, but the two most recent editions of the World Cup have arguably seen Italy’s worst showings on football’s grandest stage. Their performance four years ago saw them fail to win a single game in the group stage despite a favourable draw, which pitted them against New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia.
That dire string of performances saw Marcello Lippi lose his job, but his replacement, Cesare Prandelli, has perhaps somehow done even worse, winning just once with what appeared to be a vastly superior squad.
The blame for their failing centres largely on the coach—whose shortcomings were discussed here—and Mario Balotelli, who turned in a string of awful displays despite having the team built around him. It is hard to remember a worse showing by Italy at the World Cup than the one this summer.