When the World Cup was expanded to twenty-four nations for the tournament in Spain in 1982, the decision didn’t come without criticism. Some of it was reserved for the fact that twenty-four nations meant that the tournament had to take an almost absurd looking shape with two group stages (which was jettisoned after one tournament), but the majority of it was reserved for the notion that an expanded World Cup finals would lead to lopsided matches, with new teams getting thrashed out of sight by the old guard. The transitional period was difficult one (El Salvador’s 10-1 defeat at the hands of Hungary springs immediately to mind) but, over all, this expansion was required to make football more of a global game.
The 1982 World Cup finals was significant for both of this afternoon’s teams, but for vastly different reasons. For New Zealand, this was their first (and until this year only) appearance in the finals of the World Cup. In a difficult group with Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland, their record of no wins with two goals scored and twelve conceded may look poor, but it was a primarily semi-professional and amateur team playing three teams that (with varying degrees of delusion) had aspirations of winning the competition. Those days are long gone. New Zealand arrived for the 2010 World Cup with a bang, a last minute equaliser against Slovakia proving that they deserve their place in the finals.
For Italy, 1982 marked a return from the comparative wilderness. After a slow start, they overcame Brazil and the holders, Argentina in the group stages and then cruised past Poland and West Germany to win the tournament. The image of Marco Tardelli, lost in himself having scored their third goal in Madrid, ended up as the defining image of the whole tournament. They won it again four years ago, of course, but the 2010 tournament is not going according to plan. They were held in their opening match by Paraguay, and playing a team with nothing to lose may not be ideal in their second match. Marcello Lippi has come in for considerable criticism at home over his tactical selection. How will Italy react to such criticism?
Six minutes in, we might have something approaching an answer. Shane Elliott curls over a free-kick from the left hand side, the ball comes off Fabio Cannavaro and Shane Smeltz, formerly, as we are reminded by Clive Tyldesley, of AFC Wimbledon and Halifax Town, prods the ball wide of Federico Marchetti and in to give New Zealand the lead. Whatever nerves they may have had before taking on the defending world champions may have evaporated at that moment. Italy’s response is to pound the New Zealand goal for the rest of the half. Somehow or other, though, New Zealand hold out for twenty-two minutes before the equaliser. Chiellini shoots comically wide from a corner. Zambrotta shoots narrowly wide. Montolivo hits the inside of the post.
The Italians are camped in the New Zealand half and, after twenty-eight minutes, they get the chance that their pressure has deserved from the penalty spot. A cross from the left sees De Rossi escape from his marker, Tom Smith, but Smith keeps hold of his shirt. De Rossi makes quite a bit of it (and whether he would have been able to get on the end of the ball is certainly open to question), but there are no great complaints from the New Zealand players, and Iaquinta sends the New Zealand goalkeeper Paston the wrong way from the penalty spot to bring them level. The battering continues for the remainder of the half, but New Zealand are playing with enough nous to prevent Italy too many clear goalscoring opportunities before half-time.
The second half starts much as the first half ended, with Italy throwing more and more players forward in search of an equalising goal. Almost everybody in their entire has a go of some sort or another, but New Zealand continue to throw bodies in the way of the ball and hack it away from danger as and when they need to. As the half wears on, it starts to look as if a fug of desperation has descended upon the Italian team. The crosses are coming from deeper and deeper positions, and the shots are coming from further and further out whilst getting more and more wayward. For all the pressure, Italy are struggling to penetrate the New Zealand defence.
Meanwhile, at the other end, with eight minutes to play, the shock is nearly, nearly, nearly on. Chris Wood finds himself in a little space on the left-hand side and ties Fabio Cannavaro in a not before firing in a daisy-cutter that skids past Marchetti and no more than six inches wide of the left hand post. The television camera lingers for a moment on a young Italian supporter in the crowd that looks as if he is about to have ten successive heart attacks. Still, though, the Italians come. Paston makes a brilliant save from a long range shot from Camoranesi, and the captain, Ryan Nelsen (who has somehow managed a yellow card for what we can only presume to be time-wasting while limping off the pitch with cramp), blocks a shot from Zambrotta.
Not even four minutes of injury time are enough for Italy. At the full-time whistle, the New Zealand supporters inside the stadium celebrate as if they have won the competiton. The players swap shirts while Marcello Lippi looks on with a facial expression that could be best described as having a touch of the Domenechs about it. He has been invoved in football long enough to know fully well how merciless the Italian sporting press can be, and he should probably also know that his team will be deserving of whatever brickbats are thrown their way. Ultimately, they have spent the entire ninety minutes pushing at the New Zealand defence without having the guile to find a way through it. New Zealand remain well and truly in the competition and a win against Paraguay in their final match would see them through to the last sixteen. However unlikely this may seem, it is little less likely than it would have seemed to suggest before the tournament started that they would be going into their final match unbeaten.
Italy, meanwhile, continue the European slump. Whilst they don’t seem to be in the same amount of turmoil as France or lacking the absolute basics as England seem to be, they were still lacking that creative spark this afternoon – that one, single player that can haul the rest of them up to his level. They should still qualify from this group, though. There was little to see in Slovakia’s performance this morning that would suggest that they can offer a great deal for Italy to be in the slightest bit concerned about. Like England, though, Italy will go into this match with their nerves jangling, unbeaten yet having only managed two points from two matches off the back of two uninspiring performances. The decline and fall of western civilisation continues apace.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the kind use of their graphics.