The scene unfolds aboard the President of Italy's private jet. It is 12 July 1982, and we have just taken off from Madrid heading for Rome. Around a table at the front of the cabin, four men are playing cards. Just to one side, the FIFA World Cup stands like a glorious elephant atop a small table. Crowned champions of the world the previous night, Dino Zoff and Franco Causio are coming off worst - since the President of the Republic, Sandro Pertini, and the national team boss Enzo Bearzot, trademark pipe dangling from his mouth, are no mugs when it comes to scopone.
The scene nicely illustrates the savoir-faire personality of Bearzot, who easily remains Italy's most beloved coach. Endearingly human and still very close to his players, Bearzot has always favoured the celebratory side of life, without ever allowing himself to be swayed by the size of the stakes in what, for him, was only ever a game of enjoyment.
A coach with flair
A native of the Udine region, Bearzot enjoyed an honest if unromantic professional footballing career, playing at the highest level for over 15 years and earning a solitary cap in 1955. A defensive midfielder, he spent the majority of his playing days with Inter Milan and Torino, after making his league debut in 1946 for Serie B side Pro Gorizia.
He hung up his boots in 1964 to fill a goalkeeping coach vacancy at his club, before soon becoming assistant coach. After a brief spell at the helm of Prato (Serie C), he was then appointed coach of the Italian youth team (under 23 at that time). Continuing his rapid ascension, he was soon the right hand man of national team coach Ferrucio Valcareggi, whom he assisted at 1970 and 1974 FIFA World Cups ™ in Mexico and Germany respectively.
After Italy's demoralizing group stage exit in Germany, and after the brief reign of caretaker coach Fulvio Bernardini, Bearzot himself took charge of Italy's national team in 1975, a post he occupied until 1986. In that time, he obtained 51 wins, 28 draws and 25 defeats in 104 matches at the vanguard of the Squadra Azzurra.
Looking to lay the foundations of a new squad, the coach quite naturally turned to a phalanx of players from Juventus, as the Turin outfit were dominant in Serie A at the time. At Argentina 78, the world saw another side to Italy, who displayed a much more attractive style due to the influence of promising young talents such as Paolo Rossi and Antonio Cabrini.
Bearzot built his side with meticulous patience, indifferent to the critics who had railed against him for the Squadra's dismal showing at the 1980 European Championships on home soil. Despite disappointing results in their warm-up games, Bearzot ignored their cries for major changes, standing by his players and refusing to bring in media darlings such as Inter Milan's attacking midfielder Evaristo Beccalossi or Roma striker Roberto Pruzzo.
The pressure on Bearzot grew further when he again showed his apparent blind faith in his side by reintroducing Paolo Rossi to top-level football only two months after the player had served a two-year suspension for his involvement in an infamous match betting scandal.
The brickbats intensified after the opening round of Spain 82 when Italy scraped through to the last 16 after a trio of boring draws against Poland, Peru and Cameroon, and only by dint of having superior goal difference to the Africans. The press were baying for blood, especially since Rossi was yet to tally once. At their Vigo hideaway, the Azzurri dodged further debate by refusing to talk to the media (FIFA regulations still allowed this at the time), taking advantage of the three-day break to bond his squad still tighter and work hard on their mind-set.
Believing in miracles
Yet, brave was the Italian that gave the side any hope, particularly as, to go all the way, the team were going to have to knock out Argentina, the reigning champions now reinforced by a young sensation named Maradona, and Brazil, who at the time were fielding one of their strongest sides of all time -- featuring such legends as Zico, Falcao, Socrates, Cerezo, Junior and Eder.
But reinvigorated to perfection by their wily coach, the Italians were about to rediscover their lost touch in style. With the safeguard of the seemingly unbeatable Dino Zoff in goal, the Azzurri set about exploiting the slightest space as they launched deadly counter-attacks to stun an Argentine side guilty of over-confidence (2-1). Still no goals from Paolo Rossi, but little matter. Bearzot stuck to his guns, giving one last chance to the striker with no lead in his pencil.
And on 5th July, in what many regarded as the real final in Barcelona's Sarria Stadium, the tifosi suddenly began to believe in miracles. That because no less than three times, 'Saint' Paolo Rossi scored against Brazil (3-2), totally vindicating his coach, who had never ceased to back him in the face of a torrent of criticism. The goal machine had been activated and nobody could find the off switch.
Rossi netted twice more in the semi-final against Poland (2-0), and on 11th July in the final, he set Italy on the path to victory with the opener in an easy win (3-1) over a Germany side jaded after their thrilling semi-final win over France.
When the final whistle sounded in the final, Bearzot was borne aloft in triumph by the entire team, in scenes reminiscent of Vittorio Pozzo 44 years earlier.
Italy's long-awaited third FIFA World Cup
The 1982 championship crowned seven years of tactical planning, and it is Italy's only FIFA World Cup crown in over six decades. Bearzot deployed every ounce of his charisma and committed himself unstintingly to build a team with two interchangeable players in each position. In 11 years at the helm of the Squadra Azzurra, he left a profound mark which has served as the working basis for generations of coaches, not merely his successor, Azeglio Vicini.
After a second round exit at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, Bearzot opted to make way for a new man. "For me, coaching Italy was a vocation which, as the years have passed, has become a profession. The game's values have changed since my day. Due to the development of football and the arrival of powerful sponsors, it seems as if money has moved all the goalposts.
"The player profile has also changed, especially regarding loyalty to clubs, which have themselves become profit-making businesses. What's more, football has now become a science, if not always exact, but for me, it's still first and foremost a game."
Bearzot left the football scene to concentrate on his beloved collection of classic literature. But on 22 January 2002, at the age of 75, 16 years after retiring, he agreed to take charge of the technical section of the Italian Football Federation.
"Bearzot was a great - Italy's best-ever coach after Vittorio Pozzo. I am happy that's he back in the fold, as he and football should not be parted," declared Claudio Gentile. Bearzot finally stepped down in 2005.
While not ignoring football's practical side, Enzo Bearzot always placed an accent on fantasy and technique. "For me, football should be played with two wingers, a centre forward and a playmaker. That's the way I see the game. I select my players and then I let them play the game, without trying to impose tactical plans on them. You can't tell Maradona, 'Play the way I tell you.' You have to leave him free to express himself. The rest will take care of itself," Bearzot explained commendably.
At the 1982 FIFA World Cup Italy generally played a 4-3-3 formation with Zoff in goal; Gentile, Collovati, Scirea (allowed a great deal of freedom for an Italian libero) and Cabrini at the back; Antognoni, Tardelli, and Oriali in the middle; with Conti, Rossi and Graziani up front. Cesare Maldini, Dino Zoff, a fellow native of Frioul, Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile have been amongst the ones to claim significant influence from his ideals.