|Major Honours||World Cup (4), European Championship (1), Olympic football tournament Gold (1)|
Italy’s national football team, known by their nickname of the Azzurri (Blues), is one of Europe’s two most successful, along with Germany.
Each of these nations have won four FIFA World Cup titles, putting them joint-second to Brazil in the worldwide standings.
Italy are known for a football philosophy which revolves around a rock-solid defence. This solidity was key to their 2006 FIFA World Cup victory, their most recent major tournament triumph.
Governed by the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), Italy have been one of the most consistently successful teams in world soccer history.
Early history of the Azzurri
Italy beat France 6-2 in their first ever football match in 1910 having only been founded in the same year. The game was held at the Arena Civica in Milan in front of approximately 4,000 spectators, playing in a white home kit for one of only two times before switching to the famous royal blue jerseys. Long before the days of the Italian 'Catenaccio' ('The Chain', a defence-based philosophy), the side lined up in the 2-3-5 formation of the day that worked to great success in the romp over their neighbours. Italian fans reportedly threw cigarette packets at their team after the game, such was the impression left on the faithful in their first contest.
Their first significant success as a nation arrived when they picked up a bronze medal in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. They had only lost twice in the previous three years, but fell to Uruguay in the semi-finals, but beat Egypt in the third-place play-off by a stunning scoreline of 11-3 to secure their first piece of silverware.
Their run to third-place included wins over fellow European nations France and Spain, the latter having to be settled by a rematch after an initial 1-1 draw (Italy won 7-1 in the rematch).
Ever the innovators, the Azzurri also came first in the now defunct Central European International Cup in its first edition between 1927-30. The tournament, which faded out after the introduction of the European Championships, was a round-robin format that saw teams playing home and away, often taking up to five years to complete. The competing nations alongside Italy were Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and in the final edition of the competition, Yugoslavia.
Back to back World Cups and Olympic Gold
Despite lodging to host the tournament before the 1928 Olympics, the Azzurri declined to participate in the inaugural World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay. They were not alone in their thinking, with other European nations like Holland and Spain declining their invite on the basis of their players' concerns that they would come home from to no jobs in the era of the Great Depression.
Italy did, however, make up for lost time by going on to win the next two tournaments in 1934 and 1938, led by the trail-blazing Vittorio Pozzo as the coach and star player Giuseppe Meazza, coined as 'Il Genio' ('The Genius') by the press.
The triumph in 1934, on home soil and their first ever World Cup, didn't stray from controversy as they needed another replay match against Spain in order to progress, just as they did in the 1928 Olympics. Several decisions were reported to have gone the way of the host nation but they did prevail in the replay of the quarter-final tie.
After picking up another Central European International Cup in 1935, Italy added to their trophy cabinet at the 1936 Olympics to win their first gold. La Nazionale beat Austria 2-1 to claim the prize eight years after their initial bronze medal.
After World War II, a plane crash which killed several instrumental Italy players in 1949 affected Italy's World Cup performance the following year. Italy did not make it past the first round either in 1950 or the 1954 and 1962 World Cups. They were unable to qualify for the 1958 tournament.
Italy did not participate in the first European Championships in 1960 and were knocked out by the Soviet Union in the first round of qualifying in 1964.
Italy took a strong squad to the 1966 World Cup, featuring the likes of Gianni Rivera and Giacomo Bulgarelli, but they were beaten by North Korea and eliminated in the group stages, much to the chagrin of Italian supporters, who met the team with protests when they arrived back home.
The Azzurri's first European Championship and World Cup final
Evidently, Italy learned their lesson from their 1966 humiliation, because in 1968, they became European champions for the first time after beating Yugoslavia in Rome for their first piece of silverware for 30 years.
Nonetheless, luck was on the side of the Italians after their 0-0 draw against the Soviet Union in the semi-finals was fatefully decided by a coin toss. The initial final match was a 1-1 draw after extra time, with Italy winning the replay 2-0 thanks to goals from Luigi Riva and Pietro Anastasi.
In 1970, Italy reached the World Cup final for the first time since their last win in 1938 but were eventually beaten by the famous Brazil side that included Pele's final tournament appearance. The most memorable game, perhaps not only on Italy's road to the final but maybe even in tournament history, was the 4-3 semi-final win over West Germany. Karl-Heinz Schnellinger left it late to equalise in the final seconds to force extra-time, where then five of the seven goals were netted and the lead changed three times.
The 1974 World Cup campaign was less successful as Italy were eliminated in the first round. Poland got the better of the Italians in a shock 2-1 defeat that was sandwiched between two failed qualification bids for the 1972 and 1976 European Championships.
Around the time of the 1978 World Cup, a new generation of players began to break through, with Paolo Rossi being a key figure.
At the tournament, Italy beat eventual champions Argentina, but a 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands meant they had to settle for a place in the third-place playoff. Goalkeeper Dino Zoff's error in the match against Holland proved costly as he was beaten from long range by Arie Haan.
In the third-place final, Italy were beaten again, this time 2-1 by Brazil.
Italy hosted the European Championships for the second time in 1980, but had to settle for fourth place after Fulvio Collovati missed the final penalty in a scintillating third-place playoff game to Czechoslovakia, finishing 9-8 on penalties. Eight different nations played in the tournament for the first time, instigating a new group stage format where the top teams in each group of four advanced straight to the final, whereas those second-placed, which included Italy after winning only one of their group games, qualified for the third-placed match.
The 1982 World Cup came off the back of a Serie A match-fixing and betting scandal, known as the Totonero scandal of 1980, which saw players such as Paolo Rossi prosecuted and suspended for two years for match fixing. The high-profile affair also involved some of Italy's footballing giants, such as Juventus, Lazio and AC Milan, the latter of which was relegated to Serie B as punishment. Paolo Rossi however made it back in time to feature for his country in the tournament after serving his ban.
Italy qualified for the second round off the back of draws against Poland, Peru and Cameroon. After heavy criticism, they decided to keep the press at a distance with only coach Enzo Bearzot and captain Dino Zoff appointed to speak to the media.
In their second round group, Italy beat Argentina 2-1 before Paolo Rossi inspired a 3-2 win over Brazil, which sent them through to the semi-finals, where they beat Poland thanks to another Rossi intervention, this time in the form of a brace.
Rossi, Marco Tardelli and Alessandro Altobelli scored for Italy in a 3-1 final victory over West Germany at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and they at last reigned supreme again, with their star striker Rossi claiming the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards too.
However, Bearzot's reign as manager ended in disappointment as Italy failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships and were eliminated from the round of 16 at the 1986 World Cup.
Under new coach Azeglio Vicini, new players such as Paolo Maldini, Ciro Ferrara and Gianluca Vialli were given a chance to impress. In 1988, Italy were beaten at the semi-final stage of the European Championships to a resolute Soviet Union in a 2-0 loss. The side were commended nonetheless for making it out of a ridiculously challenging group unbeaten, facing the likes of West Germany, Denmark and Spain, beating the latter two nations.
Harder times in the 1990s
Despite the worldwide acclaim of its domestic league in the decade, the national team seldom matched the glory of Serie A. Italy finished third at the 1990 World Cup on home soil, losing to Argentina in the semi-finals, but beating England in the third-place play-off. Despite failure to qualify for the 1992 European Championships, they were top of the FIFA World Rankings by November 1993.
The Azzurri qualified for the final of the 1994 World Cup thanks largely to an inspirational tournament from Roberto Baggio, but he missed a penalty in the shootout against Brazil in the final, which the South American nation won.
Italy were eliminated at the group stage of Euro 1996 and the quarter-final stage of the 1998 World Cup. The latter saw them crash out in another penalty shootout against eventual champions France.
In 2000, Italy made the final of the European Championships by beating the Netherlands in a penalty shootout. However, a golden goal from David Trezeguet saw them lose the final to France.
A controversial elimination from the 2002 World Cup at the round of 16 stage due largely to poor officiating was followed by a group stage exit at Euro 2004, but Italy would soon rise to the top again.
The 2006 World Cup
New manager Marcello Lippi wrote his name into the World Cup history books by leading this squad to victory despite off-field turmoil. Once again, Italy headed into the World Cup in Germany off the back of a Serie A match-fixing scandal. The 'Calciopoli' scandal uncovered clubs, in particular Juventus, and referees in collusion to select favourable officials for certain matches.
Five of the squad for the tournament had played for Juve in the season previous, including captain Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro del Piero. With typical Italian spirit however, Lippi's men rose above the noise to win the tournament as they did in 1982, beating France on penalties in the final after a 1-1 draw.
Italy's run to glory was impressive, conceding once in six games preceding the meeting with France, a storied rivalry in international competition. Along with Les Bleus overcoming Italy six years previous in the European Championship final, the rivals had met four times in previous World Cups (each side winning twice previous to 2006). The 2006 World Cup final is famous for not only the dramatic penalty shoot-out, but mainly Zinedine Zidane's headbutt on Italy defender Marco Materazzi.
The latter had allegedly made a provocative comment about a family member of the France midfielder. Both had scored earlier on in the match, but it was Zidane's illustrious career that came to an unfortunate conclusion with a consequential was sent off in his final international match in the second half of extra-time. With nothing separating the sides, penalties were in order and David Trezeguet's miss proved costly as the Italians converted all of their spot-kicks.
Fabio Cannavaro starred for Italy in the heart of defence and won the Ballon d'Or - a rare instance of the honour being bestowed upon a defender with only two being awarded previously (Franz Beckenbauer in 1972 and Matthias Sammer in 1996).
The Azzurri in recent years
Italy were eliminated from the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 by eventual champions Spain and suffered a horrific group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was the first time they had failed to surpass the first round of the World Cup since 1974, and done so in spectacularly catastrophic fashion. They couldn't muster three points in a group containing New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia, finishing flat last. Italian publication Corriere della Sera commented: "One of our ugliest national teams ever, actually, the ugliest ever."
Nevertheless, they regrouped and made the final of Euro 2012, eventually losing 4-0 to Spain after an initial stalemate in the group stages. Italy were, however, once again eliminated from the group stage of the next World Cup in 2014.
The Azzurri were eliminated from the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 in France by then-world champions Germany. Astonishingly, Italy then failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Roberto Mancini took over as Italy's manager in 2018 and won 18 of his first 27 matches in charge, including an unprecedented 10-match win streak in their 2020 European Championship qualifiers.
Euro 2020 success
After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy underlined their return to prominence on the international stage by winning Euro 2020.
Gli Azzurri started the competition strongly, scoring three goals back-to-back against both Turkey and Switzerland. Before these games, Italy had never scored more than two goals in a match at the European Championships before.
After beating Wales in their final group stage, they beat Austria after extra time and then beat the 'golden generation' Belgium team. Spain awaited in the semi-finals, with Italy winning on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
They faced England in the final at Wembley and fell behind for the first time in the tournament when Luke Shaw scored after just two minutes. However, they battled back into the match, equalized through Leonardo Bonucci, and then won another penalty shootout to win their second European Championships crown.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon holds the record for most caps for the Italian national team. He was in goal during their triumphant 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign. Buffon, who has spent most of his club career with Juventus, is widely regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.
Luigi Riva remains Italy's top goalscorer with 35 goals to his name. He starred for Italy between 1965 and 1974. Giuseppe Meazza and Silvio Piola are the only two other players to have reached 30 goals for their country.
Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro were two defenders who embodied an era of tremendous solidity for Italy. Meanwhile, Andrea Pirlo was the star man for Italy in midfield for that generation.
Italy's biggest rivals
Italy boasts a plethora of rivalries with different nations. Their matchup with Brazil is known as 'Clasico Mundial' or the 'World Derby', being two of the most successful nations internationally who share nine World Cups and 10 continental titles between them. The sides have met twice in the World Cup final, in 1970 and 1994, with the Selecao coming out the better on both occasions.
Italy also holds strong rivalries with continental nations such as France. After playing out Italy's first ever match in 1910, they have met in crucial matches at many major tournaments such as the 2000 European Championships and the 2006 World Cup. The Italians have won 18 of the 39 meetings, with France succeeding 11 times.
There is also a rivalry with Germany, who are the only European football nation who can legitimately claim to be more historically successful than Italy.
Italy is known for having loyal and passionate football fans. Their country's club sides were innovative in forming the subculture of hardcore ultras that have spread across Europe. But loyalties have somewhat been tested at times by the North-South divide in the country when cheering on the Azzurri.
Diego Maradona infamously tried to exploit this when he encouraged the people of Naples to cheer on Argentina in the 1990 World Cup semi-final rather than Italy. Maradona was a player at the southern club Napoli at the time.
- Jul 12, 2021