Criticism of Italy's tactics is not likely to change the way they play, says Roberto Gotta

Car horns stayed silent on Sunday night, July 2. How ironic it has been to see one of the dullest, most defensive national teams of all time come within a minute of winning a tournament they had entered without much hope. Whenever Italy enter a tournament with low expectations, they fare much better than when they are expected to do well. It happened in Argentina 78 and, memorably, in Spain 82, when the Italy camp was torn by controversies and the team was barely seen as capable of progressing to the second round (which they did, just), then went on to win it.

Zoff’s team did not produce any memorable moments but they did exactly what was needed, and, when attacked after going ahead, almost always managed to protect their goal, at times with Alessandro Del Piero, arguably one of the world’s best talents, reduced to kicking and pushing opponents in his own half.

Had Italy actually won Euro 2000, would it have meant that the national team can only succeed when it plays conservatively, as opposed to the current reckless tactics of Italian club sides? First of all, it is ironic that Dino Zoff should be hailed as a hero while Cesare Maldini, who used the same tactics at the last World Cup, was chased out of the job, supposedly for being a coward and not giving Roberto Baggio a leadership role.

Initially, Maldini had seemed to be the saviour after Arrigo Sacchi’s controversial reign. No one now wants to see the return of Sacchi and his attacking football (which never materialised, mostly because his teams couldn’t defend well). People seem more at ease with a coach who follows the national tradition of standing back and catching opponents on the break. Maldini himself, after all, had grown up as a player under the Milan coach Nereo Rocco, whose definition of a great team was one made up of “a goalkeeper who saves everything, an assassin in defence, a genius in midfield, a goalscoring forward and seven donkeys who run all the time”.

Much has been said about the failure of Italian clubs in Europe last season, Lazio being outclassed by Valencia in the Champions League quarter-finals and Juventus, Parma and Milan going out even earlier. There were calls to rid Serie A not just of the cheap, useless foreign players like many of those who litter Premiership clubs, but even some of the good ones.

When I was a kid, in the Seventies, I remember most top of the table clashes ended 0-0 and Serie A football generally was desperately dull and boring. Now, it’s not uncommon to see big games ending in 4-3 wins. The presence of foreign players, many of them attacking midfielders and forwards, forces some managers to put unbalanced teams on the pitch – you certainly cannot play conservatively when you have Salas, Veron, Simone Inzaghi, Boksic and Ravanelli in your side.

Zoff did not have such riches at his disposal. Without the athleticism and speed of Holland and France, and with Del Piero out of sorts, he could only do what he felt was best, and that meant damage limitation. It was achieved to perfection against Holland, but came up short in the final.

On the night on July 2 the usual suspects came out the bushes again and demanded a new approach. But while Italy’s defeat in the final could hardly be said to be bad for football, it is not likely to make an instant change in the way the national team plays either, regardless of who replaces Zoff.

From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month

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