Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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We’ll Meet Again...

    Mark it in your diaries – Tuesday 27th June 2006. Should the first round of the World Cup pan out a certain (and predictable) way, it could be a very special day, especially between the hours of four pm and six pm Greenwich Mean Time. It might involve you getting up ludicrously early, or staying up ludicrously late; you may need to skive off work early ( I have a bullet-proof excuse all lined up just in case) or you may be on holiday somewhere. Just get yourself in front of a television.

    Dortmund will be the venue, the giant Westfalenstadion, where Borussia Dortmund drew an incredible average gate of 77,000 last season. It will also stage a Germany group game and a semi-final, but the match I am hoping we see will be a renewal of acquaintances between those old rivals Italy and Brazil.

    No fixture in the history of World Cup football is as shrouded in mystique, mythology and legend as this one. Brazil have actually played Sweden more times than they have the Italians at the World Cup, but their five meetings with the Azzurri are part of World Cup folklore that has sustained the appeal of the competition since 1930. Never has a ninety minutes passed between these two in the World Cup without leaving behind a memento that will stay with the memory of the tournament forever.

    It began during the baby steps of the World Cup in 1938, one of the pre-war competitions so often overlooked. Italy arrived in France as the reigning champions and met the emerging Brazil team in the semi-finals in the Velodrome in Marseille. Setting the pattern for the future, Brazil were the best attacking team in the tournament, and sensing a final chose an option of gobsmacking over-confidence, even by their standards. To keep them fresh, the management rested Leonidas, their top scorer and probably the best player in the world pre-1945, and also his midfield supplier Tim. Inevitably this backfired horrendously, Italy won the match 2-1 and went on to retain their title. Brazil kept shooting themselves in the foot tournament after tournament until they broke their duck in 1958.

    When the teams next met 32 years later the World Cup, and football, had changed beyond all recognition. The World Cup in Mexico 1970 was now a globally televised spectacular, in radiant technicolour, with the ugly spectre of advertising creeping guiltily around the side of every pitch. The first ‘modern’ World Cup, when Brazil and Italy met in the final they were competing to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever as it would be the third victory for either side. And what a stage; the Azteca in Mexico City, the cathedral of World Cup football.

    Italy despite having the attacking options of Luigi Riva and Sandro Mazzola, were now utter slaves to the padlock defensive system of catennaccio, and were mercilessly swept aside by one of the greatest front sixes ever assembled – Rivellino, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Pele, Jairzinho and Tostao. The Italians briefly tied the game at 1-1 but were blown away in the second half, two quick goals by Jairzinho and Gerson, then a final, crushing strike by the captain Carlos Alberto. You know the one – Clodoaldo’s dribbling, Rivellino down the line, Jairzinho across to Pele, the perfect lay-off, a timely bobble, and the shot to complete the most flawless team goal in history. End of game and, effectively, the end of an era.

    Eight years later and the two teams would meet in Buenos Aires for the third and fourth placed play-off in the controversial Argentina 78 tournament. Thus far, the only meeting between the two that has had little relevance, with both teams licking their wounds after narrowly missing the final. Italy were 1-0 up and 45 minutes away against the Dutch, before a long range effort from Ernie Brandts and then a shot from another continent by Arie Haan flew past Dino Zoff to put the Netherlands in the final. Brazil of course were rightly enraged as the victims of Peru’s scandalous surrender by six goals to Argentina, which guaranteed the hosts and their odious regime a safe passage to the final on goal difference. However Brazil had abandoned the attacking style that endeared them to supporters worldwide in favour of a more defensive, European approach and barely scraped out of the first round after some anaemic performances.

    In essence then nothing to play for but that generally doesn’t stop these teams serving up something special when they play each other. The match was one of the best of the tournament, with Franco Causio putting Italy ahead only for it to be cancelled out midway through the second half by an amazing piece of skill from full-back Nelinho. Receiving the ball on the right touchline just about level with the edge of the penalty area, he hit a shot with the outside of his right-foot that curled wickedly and flew past a flailing Zoff and landed just inside the far post. A tournament characterised by amazing long range shooting had just seen the best goal of the World Cup. Eight minutes later Dirceu cracked a twenty yard effort past Zoff to secure third-place, the fourth time in two games the great goalkeeper had been beaten by shots from outside the area.

    In 1982 Italy had roughly the same team from the play-off in Argentina but the dour Brazilian team had been replaced with a wonder team overflowing with creativity and verve. This (as it turns out only fleeting) return to the attacking philosophy saw them sweep aside the USSR, Scotland, New Zealand and Argentina amidst a blizzard of brilliant goals en route to what was effectively a quarter-final against Italy in the tiny Sarria Stadium in Barcelona, home to Espanyol. The ground was full five hours before kick-off, the sun was blazing…there was magic in the air.

    And the game was incredible. A hat-trick from he’s-suspended-for-three-years-oops-sorry-did-we-say-three-we-meant-two Paolo Rossi knocked out Brazil, who scored two superb goals through Socrates and Falcao, but it would need another column, several columns, to recount the story of the greatest game in World Cup history to that point. Had West Germany and France not usurped it with their epic in Seville four days later, it would still be the greatest. Italy were thus revived and won the tournament, Brazil left with that horrible tag of contenders for ‘Best Team Never To Win The World Cup’.

    1994 was the last time these adversaries met in a World Cup, in the final no less in the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California. This match has since been mercilessly criticised as a snore-job as 120 goalless minutes passed, but I remember at the time and still think now that it was utterly absorbing. Two world class teams locked in combat, both one mistake away from losing the greatest prize in sport. The tension was unbearable but clearly not getting to a man of the calibre of Franco Baresi, who had been rushed back from an operation to play the final and effortlessly kept Romario and Bebeto at bay.

    The shoot-out is almost too painful to recall. Baresi scooped his penalty over the bar, and when Baggio did the same Brazil had won. I found this a particularly scarring experience, two of the greatest players in World Cup history (both would walk into my Top 10), in front of half of the planet, reduced to tears and despair, left with a moment that will haunt them forever. Sometimes I hate football; it can be unspeakably cruel.

    So it could happen again – if Brazil win their group and Italy finish second in theirs, they are all set for a showdown in the second round in Dortmund. Whilst you may expect Brazil and Italy to win their groups and avoid each other, history does suggest it will happen. Not since 1978 have Brazil advanced beyond the first round in anything other than first position in their group, and have only lost one of twenty-seven opening round matches in the last 40 years, to Norway in 1998 when they had already won the group anyway.

    Italy on the other hand are notorious slow-starters at the World Cup – it’s just something they do, like great food and unstable governments. In thirteen attempts at the group stages they have topped their group only four times. Like a boxer not wanting to leave his fight in the gym, the Italians do the bare minimum in the group phase and reserve their best football for the knockout stage of the competition. With the prospect of Adriano, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Kaka as early as the second round though, this may force a slight shift in philosophy.

    That said, it would be by no means easy for Italy to win their group anyway, having to face Ghana, the Czech Republic and the USA. Whilst not quite the minefield of the Argentina-Holland-Ivory Coast-Serbia and Montenegro combination in Group C, it is not far from being a Group of Death. There is of course the other scenario, that Italy win their group and Brazil finish second in theirs, leading to a second round match on Monday 26th June in Kaiserslauten, but how unlikely is this? Read any comments from the aftermath of the draw from the representatives of Japan, Croatia and Australia and you will see the white flag has gone up already, so hypnotised are they by the yellow shirt. Brazil will win it (you may as well pencil it in on your wall-chart now), it’s just a case of who finishes second.

    So keep the 27th free, it could well be worth it. Brazil, if you count the penalty victory, are 3-2 up in this fixture, so someone out of Toni, Gilardino, Vieri, Totti, Cassano or Pirlo will need to make themselves a hero to bring it level. The cast of characters may not be as impressive as in years gone by but where this fixture is concerned that might not even matter.



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