GOTP Italia: Euro ’68 – Burying the ghost of North Korea

imageI walked past a men’s hairdressers in downtown Bologna and a giant photo of an Italian football team stared out at me through the window. It’s not an uncommon site in a coffee bar, tobacconist or barber to have such adornments – before the corporatisation of Britain, which made people that cut hair into technicians, you could often find evidence of the proprietor’s favourite football team on the wall.

One of the reasons I liked going to my neighbourhood barber was that he would update me on local football gossip before discussing the goings-on at Burnley, not to mention the players he had worked with in his youth team. He knew his football, did the late Alan Sostachenko, and he wasn’t a bad barber either!

In Bologna, you can find the odd poster of the 1964 local side that won Serie A. On this occasion, the faded wall hanging had the words “Grazie Italia” and the team was Italy’s well-groomed 1968 European Championship winners.

You couldn’t miss them. The dark features of the Sicilian Pietro Anastasi, the granite-like Luigi Riva, Dino Zoff, the moustachioed Sandro Mazzola and the imperious Giancinto Facchetti of Inter, and Gianni Rivera, the one-time golden boy of Italian football. How Italy could do with that lot today.

The Italian triumph of 1968 has often been forgotten, mainly because the competition itself had not attained the gravitas it has these days. Also, given the lack of TV coverage in the late 1960s – despite your grandmother’s claim that, “there’s too much football on the box” – meant that anything not involving England received scant attention from the media.

England were still wallowing in the afterglow of their World Cup success. They had qualified for the two-legged quarter-finals by just winning a group that comprised the four home nations. It was basically the home international championships from 1966-67 and 1967-68 and England went through by virtue of a 1-1 draw at Hampden Park in front of an astonishing 134,000 crowd.

Other highly-fancied nations fell by the wayside, notably West Germany, who slipped up in their final game in Albania, a goalless draw that sent them dancing in the streets of Tirana. Yugoslavia went through instead. Portugal, third-placed in the 1966 World Cup, also tumbled out early. We would never see the great Eusebio again in major finals. Italy went through unbeaten in their group, dropping only one point. The tall and impressive Riva was on form in the qualification stages, scoring six goals, including a hat-trick against Cyprus.

Italy’s national team was going through a transitional period after it’s disastrous World Cup performance. Rivera felt that the North Korea debacle would set Italian football back a decade, but 1968 and 1970 would disprove that theory. Nine of the 1966 squad that lost 1-0 to the North Koreans were in there in ’68, including six that played in that fateful game.The ghost of North Korea would haunt the azzurri for years to come and feed the underlying neurosis in Italian football.

The quarter-finals brought together England and Spain, with Sir Alf Ramsey’s team winning both games. France were hammered 6-2 on aggregate by Yugoslavia, while Hungary [predictably] let slip a 2-0 first leg lead to go out 2-3 to Eastern Bloc overlords USSR. Italy came from behind to beat Bulgaria 4-3 on aggregate, with a new star emerging, Pierino Prati. He made his debut in the first leg in Sofia, scoring as Italy lost 2-3. Prati had helped Milan to the Serie A title in 1967-68 and was the league’s top scorer with 15 goals. He netted in the second leg as Italy won 2-0 in Naples. With Cagliari’s Riva sidelined through injury, Prati had the chance to make his name.

Euro ’68 was a slimline affair, with just the semi-finals and final taking place in Italy. The host nation opened the tournament in Naples against the strong Soviets, and after a tight contest, in which Zoff’s fine goalkeeping prevented Italy from being beaten, the game ended 0-0. Bizarrely, the tie was decided by the toss of a coin and Italy won through. A quite ridiculous way of determining such an important match.

Later that evening, favourites England were beaten 1-0 in Florence by Yugoslavia. It was a brutal 90 minutes and after Dragan Dzajic had given the Yugoslavs the lead with three minutes remaining, Alan Mullery was sent off, becoming the first England player to be dismissed in an international fixture. England won the third-place play-off 2-0 against USSR.

Italy manager Ferruccio Valcareggi was forced to constantly change his team during the competition. After winning through against USSR, he was deprived of the services of Rivera through injury and in fact, made three changes from the semi-final. Out went Rivera (Milan), Giancarlo Bercellino (Juventus) and Mazzola (Inter), and in came Pietro Anastasi of Varese, Aristio Guarneri (Bologna) and AC Milan’s Giovanni Lodetti.

Anastasi’s inclusion, for the first time, was interesting. He had scored 11 times in his Serie A debut season for Varese and only a handful of forwards had bettered his total. He had made headlines by scoring a hat-trick against Juventus in February and his exploits soon earned him a 650 million Lire move to the Turin club.

Italy struggled in the final on June 8 in Rome and Dzajic put Yugoslavia ahead after 32 minutes. It was only a late free kick from Inter’s Angelo Domenghini that saved Italy and forced a 1-1 draw.

Two days later, a much-changed and much-improved Italy ran the game against the weary Yugoslavs. Valcareggi brought back Riva, who had recovered from a broken leg, and the gamble paid off spectacularly. Mazzola was also back and Roberto Rosato of Milan, Juventus’ Sandro Salvadore and Giancarlo De Sisti of Fiorentina were included.

Riva and Anastasi linked up perfectly and Riva, in particular, was in outstanding form. His left foot shot, a trademark, gave Italy the lead after 12 minutes and after half an hour, the 20 year-old Anastasi controlled the ball well and volleyed a second goal, all in one slick movement. It was enough to give Italy the Henri Delaunay trophy.

The fireworks soared into the Rome night sky as Italy celebrated rejuvenation. Anastasi moved to Juve, scored twice on his debut and hit 15 goals in total in 1968-69. Riva scored 21 Serie A goals and repeated that total in 1969-70 as he helped Cagliari win their one and only title. Anastasi was injured prior to the 1970 World Cup, but Riva played his part in Italy’s successful campaign in Mexico. The azzurri didn’t hang on to their European crown, however. They were beaten in the 1972 competition at the quarter final stage by Belgium. They would always have June 10, 1968, though.

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