Euro ’96, the tournament in which football ‘came home’. After 30 years, England were once again hosting a major international tournament. Played out to a backdrop of Britpop, Cool Britannia, Baddiel and Skinner, Trainspotting and the rise of Tony Blair, Euro ’96 is feverishly remembered – at least in the UK – for everything that happened around the competition, more so than what took place between four white lines.
It was an odd tournament, in many ways. The best teams of USA ’94 – Italy, Bulgaria and Romania – either disappointed or had peaked in America, whilst sides who would go on to make deep runs at France ’98 – Holland, Croatia and France – weren’t quite ready by the summer of 1996. What you had left was a meddling tournament with little memorable moments.
There were notable goals that have stayed long in the memory: Davor Suker’s lob over Peter Schmeichel; Karel Poborsky’s scoop against Portugal; Gazza’s volley against Scotland. But the only game of genuine quality was the semi final between Germany and England. In the drama department, Euro ’96 pales in comparison to all three World Cups of the decade.
As for Italy, their premature exit was due to the lunacy of Arrigo Sacchi. Sacchi’s reputation would never recover from the competition, and he finally resigned from the job by the end of 1996 after five highly contentious years in the Azzurri hot-seat.
Following the conclusion of USA ’94, Italy were in qualifying Group 4 for Euro ‘96 and were surrounded by teams that had all once been satellites of the dissolved Soviet Union and broken up Yugoslavia: Ukraine, Croatia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia were all now playing as independent countries for the first time.
Sacchi had pledged to introduce new blood into the ageing Azzurri side, which he did slowly, with Christian Panucci being one of the new members. Italy got off to their traditional slow start to qualifying, drawing 1-1 away to Slovenia in September 1994. They followed this up with a 2-0 away victory against Estonia.
Then came the first of what many expected to be two crunch ties with Croatia in November. Played in Palermo, Italy were once again sluggish as a fine Croatian side tore through their defence at will. Suker scored twice to give Croatia their first big victory as an independent country, winning 2-1; it could just as easily have been four or five.
Sacchi recalled Roberto Baggio for the Croatian game despite the tension between the pair dating back to the World Cup. However even the presence of Italy’s star player couldn’t stop the class of Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban.
The real drama occurred after the match as a player mutiny, led by Baggio, demanded Sacchi resign. The ceaseless tinkering and an attempted style of play that was never going to succeed within the time constraints of the international game had worn thin with the players. Sacchi however had the support of Antonio Matarrese, the President of the Italian Football Federation. Matarrese had anointed Sacchi as manager of the Azzurri in late 1991 and knowing full well that his fate as president was linked to Sacchi, rejected any notion of Sacchi’s resignation.
Baggio was very vocal in his criticism of Sacchi in the wake of the Croatia defeat. When asked by a reporter if Giovanni Trapattoni would be a good choice to take over from Sacchi, he agreed. “I am not surprised he [Sacchi] is getting attacked [by the media]. He promised an exciting and spectacular style of play and he hasn’t succeeded,” Baggio remarked.
When the under-fire Sacchi got the assurance he needed from Mataresse, and with the already-strained relationship with Baggio all but shattered, he dropped him from further selection. Sacchi only called Baggio once more during the qualification phase, in the 1 – 0 win against Slovenia in September 1995.
Italy would go on to win six of their seven games in 1995 to secure qualification for the tournament as the best runners-up with Croatia topping the group. Sacchi’s team did showcase some strands of exciting football on occasions, namely in the 3-1 victory against Ukraine and the comprehensive 4 – 0 win over Lithuania.
Sacchi used 37 different players in the ten qualifying games (excluding players who were called up but failed to play). A ludicrous figure.
Italy played several friendlies in the run up to Euro ‘96, beating Wales and Hungary whilst drawing against Belgium. Sacchi named his squad for the tournament one day after the conclusion of the 1995-96 Serie A season. He remained loyal to the players who had secured qualification; nonetheless there were a couple of surprises.
During his tenure as Azzurri coach Sacchi had leaned heavily on his old Milan faction from the late ’80s. However, his decision to bring back Roberto Donadoni – the thirty-two year old had only featured three times since the World Cup final and who was about to stroll into semi-retirement in the newly formed MLS – raised eyebrows. Diego Fuser, whilst a solid hard-working winger, was hardly going to set pulses racing.
The biggest surprise was the omission of Baggio. Despite their relationship being at an all-time low, and Baggio not having a stellar season at Milan, most expected the Divine Ponytail to be on the plane for England. Sacchi couldn’t really leave out Baggio, went the thinking. He was still Italy’s most gifted player.
Yet out he was, and he would never play in a European Championship.
‘’Baggio has struggled with Milan and I’m obliged to take players who are on form and who can integrate perfectly with the kind of game I’ve chosen,’’ stated Sacchi. To anyone reading between the lines, Sacchi’s message was clear: there would be no soloists or freethinkers in his squad.
Beppe Signori, who’d just won the Capocannoniere title for the third time in four seasons, was another controversial exclusion. Signori had incurred the wrath of Sacchi by refusing to play on the left wing during qualifying, having done so throughout USA ’94. He insisted he be utilised in his natural position. Signori never played for Italy again.
Gianluca Vialli, fresh from winning the Champions League as Juventus captain, was another omission. Vialli and Sacchi had a spat running back to 1992, supposedly over a prank Vialli pulled on Sacchi concerning Parmesan cheese. Sacchi, an individual devoid of all humour, didn’t appreciate the joke and never selected Vialli again.
In the shape of Baggio, Signori and Vialli, Sacchi left 42 Serie A goals from the 1995/96 season on the table. During an era in which goals in the world’s toughest league came at a premium, that was a monumental figure.
Of the forwards Sacchi did select, only Gianfranco Zola had any tournament experience, and even that was very brief. Zola infamously received his marching orders against Nigeria at USA ’94 after being on the pitch for a mere twelve minutes. It would be tournament debuts for Alessandro Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Enrico Chiesa and Pierluigi Casiraghi.
Italy started their tournament at Anfield against the talented Russians, several of whom played in Serie A. Italy got off to a great start when Casiraghi, who was just coming off the most prolific season of his career with Lazio, scored after only four minutes made possible by a mistake by the Russian goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov.
Russia returned with force after a quarter of an hour when Valery Karpin’s shot, blocked by Luigi Apolloni on the edge of the area, fell into the path of Ilya Tsymbalar. The midfielder breezed past Alessandro Costacurta and slammed the ball past Angelo Peruzzi at his near post.
At half time Sacchi substituted the ineffectual Del Piero, who like Signori before him, was shunted to the left hand side of midfield in Sacchi’s 4-4-2 system. Del Piero was replaced by Donadoni and wouldn’t play a further minute in the tournament. Seven minutes into the second half Casiraghi added a second, lashing home from a slick Zola pass into the bottom corner of Cherchesov’s goal.
Ravanelli replaced Casiraghi in the 80th minute and could have added to Italy’s tally, but somehow managed to miss two glaring chances. Italy would see the game out, however, those misses by the Juve striker would have repercussions. Germany saw off the Czech Republic with a 2 – 0 win.
Often in a tournament when a big team exits prematurely, you can pinpoint the exact moment when things starte falling apart. For Sacchi and Euro ’96, it was the game against the Czech Republic that signaled the beginning of the end.
If there was one attribute that Sacchi didn’t lack, it was the occasional ballsy move. His decision to substitute Baggio after twenty minutes against Norway at USA ’94 when Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off goes down as of the biggest gambles in World Cup history. Luckily for Sacchi it paid off. For the game against the Czechs he would roll the dice again.
He made five changes to the side that beat Russia three days prior. Out went Angelo Di Livio, Roberto Di Matteo, Del Piero, Zola and Casiraghi to be replaced with Fuser, Dino Baggio, Ravanelli, Donadoni and Chiesa. In Sacchi’s eyes, the system was the star; the players were merely pieces on a chessboard that could be shuffled around and interchangeable at will.
“You can’t play in the European Championships with only 11,12 or 13 players,” Sacchi said during the tournament. “I have faith in all of my 22.” Changing five players before the second match was arrogance bordering on sheer lunacy, as he would learn.
The game, once again at Anfield, produced the first real shock of the tournament. Sacchi’s high defensive line was caught out after only four minutes, when Karel Poborsky, facing towards his own goal, swiveled and swung in a cross from the right hand channel. Future Serie A legend Pavel Nedved darted in behind Roberto Mussi and nabbed the ball home past Angelo Peruzzi.
Italy equalised through Chiesa, who dispatched a Fuser pass following a rapid counter attack. To most it seemed like the Italians would push on, however the deck of cards started to crumble when Apolloni got sent off after receiving two yellow cards in the space of half an hour in the first half. Six minutes later the Czechs regained the lead, when Radek Bejbl met Pavel Kuka’s cross inside the Italian box and connected with a sweetly struck volley that gave Peruzzi no chance.
In the second half Sacchi replaced the invisible Ravanelli with Casiraghi and later introduced Zola with twelve minutes left. The two nearly combined to save Sacchi’s blushes at the death, but Casiraghi lifted Zola’s chipped pass over the crossbar with the goal gaping.
With the Germans brushing Russia aside with a 3–0 win, Italy now had to beat their old rivals, or at least better their result against the Czechs, to qualify from the group. “Sacchi, you asked for this”, screamed Il Corriere dello Sport the next day, as the already-fierce criticism for the former shoe salesman now escalated to near national hysteria. Even Salvatore Riina – the Sicilian Mafia’s ‘boss of bosses’ – weighed in on Sacchi during a break at his trial in Florence. Riina, without a hint of irony, reportedly told his lawyer: “Sacchi uses suicide tactics and suicide choices.”
“We just can’t hope to beat Germany; we must be convinced we can do it,” said Sacchi.
Sensibly, Sacchi restored Zola and Casiraghi to the starting lineup for the game against the tournament favourites. Di Matteo was brought back into midfield; Costacurta replaced the suspended Apolloni in defence. Paolo Maldini, who had a uncharacteristically poor tournament, moved into the centre of defence and Amedeo Carboni started at left back.
From the opening minute the Azzurri pressed and hounded the Germans and the approach paid off as they were awarded a penalty inside the opening 10 minutes. Matthias Sammer – impeccable throughout the tournament – was unusually dithering on the ball in the German backline and with few options open for a pass, attempted to get rid of it. Casiraghi intercepted the clearance and went racing through one-on-one with Andreas Kopke. The goalkeeper tripped the striker with his left leg and there was little doubt that it was a penalty.
Zola placed the ball on the spot and took several stutter-steps before striking the ball rather meekly with his right instep. The effort was poor in truth and one that Kopke saved with minimum effort. The enormity of the occasion had clearly got to the little Sardinian and he wilted following the miss. “The mistake cut his legs”, said Sacchi after the match.
Italy regained their composure and set out again to find the elusive goal, their opponents, having already qualified, were very conservative and offered little in the way of attacking play. Fuser had two efforts brilliantly saved from Kopke, Sacchi became desperate and threw on Chiesa with twenty minutes left, however Italy didn’t look like scoring and their play faded as the minutes ticked away. It ended 0-0.
Italians all around the ground were now anxiously waiting to hear the result from Anfield in what turned out to be a humdinger of a game. The Czechs took a two-goal lead before Russia clawed their way back and then took the lead with five minutes remaining. As the news filtered through inside Old Trafford, via portable radios in those pre-mobile phone days, there was a huge roar from the Italians. At this point Sacchi’s men were through to the quarter finals and a meeting with Portugal.
However, in the 88th minute Vladimír Smicer struck from the edge of the box to equalise for the Czechs, 3-3. They were going through; Italy were going home. The silence was palpable inside The Theatre of Dreams as Italy’s dream died.
Sacchi – almost close to tears as he left the pitch – was typically robust in his comments after the game, claiming that his side ‘did not deserve to go home’. Upon being asked if he had any intention of resigning, he defiantly snapped back and said he had no intention of it and wanted to remain as coach until after France ‘98.
In the aftermath of the exit, Matarrese, Sacchi’s most ardent supporter, stood firm behind the under-siege coach, stating: “of course we are disappointed to have been eliminated, but we went out with dignity and standing on our feet.” He also made it clear that as long as he was still president of the Italian football federation, Sacchi would remain coach. He was ousted as president two months later.
In a tournament in which they only scored three goals and created precious little, leaving a creative genius in Baggio and a striker as deadly as Signori sitting at home became more profound in retrospect. Sacchi absolute obsession with the ‘system’, and the ceaseless changing of players is what led to the group stage exit.
Even by 1996 he was a man out of time. Tactics had evolved, and trying to implement such a pressing system that required daily dedication was never going to succeed in the international arena. Germany won the tournament employing Sammer as a libero – the role ironically Sacchi set out to destroy in the Italian game in the late ‘80s. He was a one trick pony, and now that pony was all worn out.
Sacchi would finally leave in December, when Silvio Berlusconi came calling once more to manage Milan. It benefitted both parties: Sacchi got back to club football and the Italian football federation got rid of a hugely divisive coach on large wages. His underwhelming and hugely unpopular five-year reign was over.
Reflecting on the tournament in 2011, Sacchi changed tack when asked about the Baggio omission, saying: “Baggio wasn’t in one of the best moments of his career. He had a knee problem. I only excluded him because of his physical condition, not for other reasons.” Baggio however, has a different view: “Sacchi made other choices for the tournament, and I wasn’t taken into consideration,” he remarked.
His legacy as leader of the national team amounts to having never used the same starting lineup twice, calling up some 89 players in his five-year spell. Even his greatest moment – reaching the 1994 World Cup final – owes more to the brilliance of Baggio than any tactical masterpiece from Sacchi. You could almost make the case that Italy reached the final in spite of Sacchi.
His reputation never truly recovered after Euro ’96. The second Milan run lasted six months before being replaced by the returning Fabio Capello, and Sacchi was never considered for a top job again.
Words by: Emmet Gates. @EmmetGates