Football has plenty of memorials, but outside the Azteca stadium in Mexico City is a plaque dedicated to one game.
Not the World Cup final, when Pelé’s Brazilians beat Italy, nor the one when Maradona led Argentina to victory against Germany. The plaque at the Azteca pays homage to a match between the Italians and the Germans, and records it simply as “The Game of the Century”.
It is probably the greatest rivalry in European football and dates back to that sweltering day in June 1970, when a tense semi-final finished 1-1 after 90 minutes and then suddenly exploded into a five-goal thriller in extra-time.
“Germany have never digested that defeat,” declared Giovanni Trapattoni in the opening Italian salvo of last week’s war of words. “Their suffering ever since stems from when we met them there.”
Joachim Low has denied he and his team have an Italy complex but their record does seem to play on German minds. It is not that Germany can’t beat Italy. They’ve done so eight times, and comprehensively when they last met in March — yet never when it counts.
They did deliver a knockout blow in Euro 96 at Old Trafford when Italy needed to win to advance beyond the group stage. Andreas Kopke saved a penalty from Gianfranco Zola in the ninth minute and went on to defy Italy when his team were down to 10 men in the second half.
The match finished 0-0, Italy went home, Germany went on to win the tournament.
But that is the only time the Italians have come off second best, and the extra-time epic in the Azteca remains symbolic.
Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who scored the last-minute German equaliser that set it all up, is still trying to get his head round what happened — and he’s lived most of his life in Italy. His Italian friends claim he watches the film of the match every year.
“Let’s not exaggerate,” he said. “But I have often watched it over the past 10 years. It’s a legendary match, but it didn’t change the history of football, or my life.
“The image I carry with me is my goal: I can’t say what we needed to win that game. They talked about it for decades in Germany too, maybe we only needed that little bit of luck.”
Not surprisingly, the image that stays with Roberto Boninsegna is rather different. He scored Italy’s opener and also put in the cross for Gianni Rivera to make it 4-3, and what he recalls is Rivera and Gigi Riva hugging each other in delight and the look on their faces.
“They looked at each other, they were hugging each other, and then they also looked for me, because I’d produced the ball for Gianni.
“It wasn’t a memorable game at all for the first 90 minutes. But the feelings of those final 30 minutes I can’t recall in any other game at that level.”
Memories of Italy’s two goals in the last minutes of extra-time in Dortmund in 2006 are still vivid. Fabio Grosso curling the ball just beyond the reach of Jens Lehmann in the German goal. Alessandro Del Piero playing matador with a deadly flick a minute later.
That was only weeks after the revelations about the match-fixing scandal known as calciopoli which did massive damage to Italian football over the following five years. There was a whiff of scandal in 1970 as well. Before the tournament the players had been at loggerheads, Milan against Inter, almost everyone against Rivera.
Nothing compared to 1982 though. Paolo Rossi was controversially restored to the side after his ban for match-fixing was reduced. The media were slating the manager, Enzo Bearzot. Italy performed so badly early on, that there was a move in parliament to withhold the bonuses due to them for reaching the knockout stage.
So July 11, 1982, and the final against the Germans, has become the most memorable date in the Italian football calendar, and the one with the most iconic images.
Antonio Cabrini’s missed penalty in the first half. Marco Tardelli running screaming, arms aloft after putting Italy 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go.
Italy’s President Sandro Pertini on his feet up in the stand, cheekily waving his pipe in the air to dismiss German efforts to salvage something from the game.
Pertini again, along with Bearzot, Dino Zoff, and Franco Causio, playing cards on the plane back home, with the World Cup trophy on the table between them. It is the most famous game of cards in Italian history. Causio was paired with Bearzot, Zoff, with Pertini, and the story is that Causio tricked the president to win the game, although Pertini insisted that he simply made a mistake.
Even the plane has passed into legend. Years later, the Italian air force sent it to Boeing, who then sold it to Alitalia in 2007 for training purposes. For the past six years, the DC9 has been stored in a hangar in Rome and it was due to be scrapped, but three months ago the airline announced that it will go to the aeronautical museum at Milan’s Malpensa airport for permanent display.
In that 1982 team the midfield enforcer was Gabriele Oriali, now working as Italy’s team manager alongside Antonio Conte.
“The way this side has grown over the past two years reminds me a bit of Italy back then,” he says. “We too were a group that became a team.
“I’m satisfied with how we’ve done so far, but it’s no surprise, as we already knew that anyone would find it difficult to play against us. We have achieved nothing yet, but we’re happy with how we’ve performed on the pitch. We’ve won by playing well and so we’ve deserved to win, which I think needs to be emphasised.”
Beppe Bergomi was at right back in 1982 and he too sees a connection between then and now.
“Bearzot and Conte’s approaches to football are different; you can’t compare them or even look for similarities. But there is a comparison to be made with their athletic preparation.” The statistics show the Italians have been running harder and further than any other side in this tournament, even Germany.
In 1982 Italy had to beat Brazil and Argentina on the way to the final but were perhaps a little fresher than their opponents. Hansi Muller, who came on to replace Karl-Heinz Rummenigge for the last 20 minutes, recalled this week that as European champions they were favourites but had played a tiring semi-final against France which finished 3-3, with four goals in extra time.
“I thought we’d win it, particularly after Cabrini missed that penalty, but in the second half the Azzurri played some great football.”
Neither Muller nor Schnellinger will be drawn on whether Germany will break their hoodoo this time, although once again they must be favourites, particularly with Italy’s selection uncertainties. Conte has yet to win a game against a German side as a manager.
The last word goes to Boninsegna: “We could have beaten the Spanish 4-0. The risk is that Germany produce that same fury we had against Spain, given they always lose to us. But if we play as we did on Monday, even Germany can’t do it.”
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