European Championship Stories: 1968 – A Rhapsody In Blue
In December of 1970, the Italian playwright Dario Fo released a play entitled “Morte Accidentale Di Un Anarchico” (“The Accidental Death Of An Anarchist”). Based on the aftermath of the 1969 Piazza Fontana Bombing in Milan, which killed seventeen people, it was a play that shone a light upon the subsequent death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist activist and railway worker who fell from the fourth floor window of a Milan police station under suspicious circumstances after having already been held for longer than Italian law specified was legal without being granted by a judge. Pinelli was later posthumously absolved of any responsibility for the bombing.
Just over two years earlier in 1968, Fo had formed Nuova Scena, a theatre collective which, it declared, would be ‘at the service of the revolutionary forces not so as to reform the bourgeois state, but to favour the growth of a real revolutionary process which could bring the working class to power’. Although Fo was a Communist, he had been an outspoken critic of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which ended the Prague Spring of that year but, as protests of various sorts reached a worldwide head in 1968, the protests of Fo some Western European Communist groups against this invasion fell on deaf ears – one hundred and eight Czechs and Slovaks were killed, and the reforms of First Secretary Alexander Dubček, which sought to liberalise Czechoslovakia through implementing “socialism with a human face”, were over.
Two months prior to the tanks rolling into Prague, Italian football had tentatively begun a renaissance of its own. An international powerhouse under questionable circumstances during the 1930s, Italian football had been hit by a hammer blow in 1949, when the Superga air disaster killed thirty-one people – including almost the entire first team squad – of Il Grande Torino, who had won the previous four Italian championships and supplied up to ten of the first choice Italian national team of the time. With its heart and soul torn from it in the most horrifically literal way possible, it is perhaps both understandable and unsurprising that the Italian national team took almost two decades to recover from the tragedy. Il Azzurri was knocked out of the 1950, 1954 and 1962 World Cups at the opening group stages and failed to qualify for the finals of the 1958 tournament. In the European Nations Cup, they didn’t enter into the first tournament in 1960 and, four years later, were beaten in the round of sixteen by the Soviet Union.
By the time of the 1966 World Cup finals in England, however, expectation levels in Italy had started to grow. The major contributing factor behind this had been Italy’s breaking of the Iberian peninsular’s grip on the European Cup, with Milan and Internazionale between them winning the tournament for three successive years between 1963 and 1965. Drawn to play the Soviet Union, North Korea and Chile in Sunderland and Middlesbrough, they started with a comfortable 2-0 win against Chile at Roker Park, before losing narrowly to a strong Soviet side in their second match. This left them needing a draw from their final match, which should have been easily attainable against the tournament outsiders, North Korea, but on a blustery day at Ayresome Park, nothing went the Italian team’s way and a single goal from Pak Doo-Ik three minutes from half-time was enough to knock Italy out of the World Cup at the group stages yet again. This time, the Italian team was greeted with rotten fruit upon its return home after the tournament.
In a year that has come to symbolise radicalism and change, that UEFA chose 1968 to tinker with the format of the competition is no great surprise. The tournament was renamed – from the European Nations Cup to the European Championships – and the previous knock-out format was replaced with eight groups to make up the quarter-finalists, which included the previous two years European Championships being merged together to guarantee one British side in the last eight of the competition. In spite of losing at home to Scotland in April 1967, the world champions England edged through after Scotland dropped points elsewhere and failed to beat England in the return match at Hampden Park in February 1968 – a match watched by a crowd of over 134,000 people. Italy, meanwhile, qualified comfortably from a mediocre group which also featured Romania, Switzerland and Cyprus. The quarter-finals were played over two legs, and Italy lost their first leg in Sofia against Bulgaria by three goals to two, before winning the return match by two goals to nil in Naples to edge through to the final competition, which they were themselves to host.
The final four saw, again, Eastern Europe meet the West. Playing against Italy and England – quarter-final winners against Spain in two matches attended by an extraordinary 220,000 people – would be the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Yet in their semi-final match at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples against the Soviet Union and in front of a crowd of over 68,000 people, an Italian team featuring such extravagant talents as Giacinto Facchetti and Sandro Mazzola of Internazionale, and Gianni Rivera of Milan, stalled. An early injury to Rivera reduced Italy to ten men, but a defensive match ended in a goalless draw despite Angelo Domengini hitting the inside of the post with ten minutes to play and, without penalty shoot-outs to decide the tie, Italy won through to the final after the referee called the two captains to his dressing room for the toss of a coin. Italian captain Facchetti called tails – the correct call – and Italy were through to the final. In the other semi-final, played in Florence, an England side which had lost Nobby Stiles and Geoff Hurst to injury playing a friendly against West Germany in Hannover just four days before the final were weakened further when Alan Mullery became their first player to be sent off, and a goal from Dragan Džajić with three minutes to play sent Yugoslavia through to the final at their expense.
The final, played in Rome, turned out to be mired in controversy. Džajić gave Yugoslavia the lead after thirty-two minutes, but with ten minutes left to play Italy were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Yugoslav penalty area and, with the referee still ordering the defensive wall back the full ten yard, Angelo Domenghini smashed his shot into the corner of the goal to send the final to a replay. Yugoslavia’s chance to win the tournament had gone and the second match, also played at the Stadio Olimpico, ended in a comfortable win for the host nation, with goals from Riva and Pietro Anastasi in the first half giving Italy a 2-0 to lift the trophy. At the World Cup finals two years later in Mexico, Italy’s revival seemed confirmed. Although they again only won one of their group matches, they qualified as winners of a group that also featured Uruguay, Sweden and Israel. A comfortable win against the host nation in the quarter-finals set up a semi-final in Mexico City against West Germany which ended in a 4-3 win after extra-time in a match subsequently described as “The Match Of The Century”, and there was no great disgrace in their 4-1 defeat at the hands of a Brazil team still talked of as perhaps the greatest football team of all time in the final.
Somehow, though, football in Italy stuttered again. Milan won the 1969 European Cup, but this would be the last time that an Italian club side would be the champions of Europe for sixteen years, whilst Italy’s reign as the champions of Europe would end at the quarter-final stage of the 1972 European Championships with a narrow aggregate defeat at the hands of Belgium. At the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany, the national team would again be knocked out at the group stages on goal difference by Poland and Argentina. At home, meanwhile, Italian political life remained unstable throughout the decade. Luigi Calabresi, a police officer connected with the death of Giuseppe Pianelli, was assassinated in 1972 and the following year Franca Rame, an actress and the wife of Dario Fo, was kidnapped, tortured and raped – Fo himself has subsequently claimed, at the behest of right-wing influences within the Italian establishment, including the Italian police.
The tit-for-tat – and occasionally random – killings and abductions did eventually stop in Italy, with the communist party being brought into a coalition government in 1981. The taint of corruption, however continued to manifest itself in Italian public life, perhaps most notably in the case of Propaganda Due (P2), a masonic lodge which was expelled from the wider orders of masonry in Italy in 1976 but which continued to operate into the 1980s, despite links with numerous crimes in Italy throughout this period, including the bombing of a railway station in Bologna in 1980 which killed eighty-five people. This culture of low and high corruption spread to football. The Italian national team qualified for the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina and performed reasonably well, winning all three of their opening group matches – including beating the host nation in Buenos Aires – before being narrowly eliminated from the second group stage after losing a de facto semi-final match to the Netherlands.
In 1980, however, the Totonero scandal shocked Italian football. Totonero was an illegal betting game that ran alongside the popular and state-owned Totocalcio pools game, but after two Roman shop-keepers, Alvaro Trinca and Massimo Cruciani, declared that players were taking money in return for bribes, twenty players received bans ranging in length from three months to six months, two club presidents were disbarred – one for a year, one for life - five clubs received points deductions and two clubs – Milan and Lazio – were demoted from Serie A to Serie B. Despite this, however, no criminal charges were ever brought over Totonero and it was one of the players banned as a result of this, Paolo Rossi, whose six goals – including that rarest of footballing commodities, a hat-trick against Brazil – that were instrumental in taking the World Cup back to Italy for the first time in forty-four years.
In the same summer that Italy won the European Championships, then, Dario Fo and the Italian communist party opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Two years later, “The Accidental Death Of An Anarchist” was released in response to death of a suspect in the case of the Piazza Fontana Bombing in Milan, and in 1972 the policeman accused by far-left groups of being responsible for the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, Luigi Carabresi, was himself shot dead in Milan. A year after this, Fo’s wife, Franca Rame was brutalised by a group that was subsequently linked to the carabinieri – the Italian gendarmerie and extreme right-wing political groups. Another group with occasional links to the far right (and who were certainly proponents of a very distinct form of social and economic conservatism) was P2, and in 1981 a list of nearly one thousand names of P2 members was found by police at the home of its Venerable Master at that time, Licio Gelli. Amongst the names on that list was a certain Silvio Berlusconi, who would go on to become the three-time Prime Minister of Italy and, of course, the owner of AC Milan. Italy’s 1968 European Championship win saw the end of two decades of paucity on the pitch that came about through tragedy, and at a time when political activism was, perhaps, at its peak. Four and a half decades on, the political world has changed significantly. The use of football for financial and political gain, on the other hand, may always be with us.
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