Italy is today mourning the loss of its best-loved coach, Enzo Bearzot, who has died at the age of 83 in Milan.
A FIFA World Cup™ winner with La Nazionale at Spain 1982, Bearzot held a firm set of principles throughout his eminent coaching career, the most important of which was that “football is a game first and foremost”.
Those principles served him well during his glorious spell in charge of the Italy team, which began in 1975 when he was appointed its “technical commissioner”, a title that ill-suited a coach that put human values before all else.
Bearzot inherited a team suffering an identity crisis, one that had come to a head with a disastrous display at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany. During his 11-year tenure, however, he restored Italian fortunes, presiding over 51 wins and 28 draws in a total of 104 matches.
In his playing days Bearzot was a wholehearted defensive midfielder who won a single cap in 1955. Trying his hand at coaching, he served a six-year apprenticeship as an assistant to national team boss Ferrucio Valcareggi, a period that encompassed Mexico 1970 and Germany 1974.
Drawing on his endless reserves of patience, and turning a deaf ear to criticism and controversy, he established a close bond with a tight-knit group of players. With young stars such as Paolo Rossi and Antonio Cabrini coming through, a new-look Italy showed signs of a renaissance at Argentina 1978, playing a more attractive and modern brand of football.
Though La Squadra Azzurra failed to reach the final of the 1980 European Championships on home soil and lacked consistency in their qualifying and warm-up matches for Spain 1982, Bearzot continued to cajole his charges and give them the confidence they needed to excel.
Nevertheless, the Italians began their world title bid in unimpressive fashion, kicking off with three scrappy draws in the group phase and squeezing Cameroon out of second place by virtue of having scored one goal more. It was then their charismatic coach began to work his motivational magic.
A team transformed
No one back home gave much chance of the Italians progressing any further in the competition, nor for that matter did anyone outside Italy. Immune to the criticism, Bearzot locked himself away with his players for three days at their Vigo training camp and focused his efforts on stiffening their resolve and boosting confidence.
Told by the wily tactician that they had nothing to fear from their second-round opponents – Diego Maradona’s Argentina and a Brazil side featuring the likes of Zico and Falcao – the Italians promptly went out and proved him right.
Unrecognisable from the outfit that stuttered through the first round and inspired by the goals of a resurgent Rossi, the Italians swept past the South American duo and all the way to the nation’s third world crown. All the while, Bearzot chewed on his pipe, overseeing an incredible triumph against the odds, his ground-breaking ideas inspiring many an imitator in the years that followed.
In January 2002, 20 years on from his crowning achievement, he accepted an invitation to take over the technical department of the Italy Football Federation, his brief being to get his message across and his basic vision of the game.
“Football is a game played with two wingers, a centre-forward and a playmaker,” he said, laying out that vision. “That was the way I saw it. I selected my players and then I let them play without trying to impose tactical systems on them.”
Bearzot’s legacy is such that he is considered the finest national coach Italy ever had, along with Vittorio Pozzo, the man who steered them to their first FIFA World Cup triumphs in 1934 and 1938.