One of the revelations of the 1978 FIFA World Cup™, Antonio Cabrini began his long international career in the Azzurri's 2-1 opening victory over France in Mar Del Plata on 2 June. It was a baptism of fire for the newcomer, but his unflappable character saw him through and he never looked back.
Knowing his players as intimately as he did, Italy's then coach Enzo Bearzot had not the slightest doubt about Cabrini's ability to cope. Despite his age and inexperience, the elegant defender was selected at left-back and fully justified his manager's faith by going on to make the role his own for the next decade.
To hold down such a specialist position in the national team at the age of 20 was all the more remarkable considering that the Cremona-born prodigy had made his professional debut for Juventus just 16 months earlier – against Lazio on 13 February 1977. Before that, he had taken the well-worn route of turning out for local club Cremonese and then Atalanta, where he was playing when the Turin giants came calling in 1976.
Plying his trade with the dominant force in Serie A and the team that provided the backbone of the Squadra Azzurra probably helped him break into the international arena so quickly, but there is no denying that Cabrini was an exceptional player. Moreover, he was one of a handful of pioneering full-backs who emerged to revolutionise the role around that time.
The famously handsome Cabrini was the natural successor to Italy legend Giacinto Facchetti. Faultless defensively and a tireless ball-winner, he was also supremely gifted going forward and loved nothing more than surging down the flanks before whipping in a pinpoint cross or shooting at goal himself. In total, he scored 33 times during his career, including nine goals for his country in 84 appearances (44 wins, 23 draws and 18 defeats). To emphasise that achievement, the next most prolific defender in Italian history is Paolo Maldini, whose seven goals came from 126 appearances.
In Argentina, Cabrini settled in swiftly on the left flank and built an understanding with defensive colleagues Claudio Gentile, Mauro Bellugi and Gaetano Scirea. He started all seven of his team's encounters and was substituted just once, after 75 minutes against Hungary. Italy finished fourth in the tournament, keeping three clean sheets in seven games, and no one except the Netherlands, eventual runners-up, and Brazil, who beat them to third place, managed to score twice against them.
Four years later in Spain, the Azzurri went on to be crowned world champions, with the defence unaltered save for Fulvio Collovati coming in to replace Bellugi. Cabrini himself experienced both highs and lows, hitting the decisive goal in the 2-1 defeat of Argentina in the second round, but missing a penalty that could have proved horribly expensive in the Final against Germany. 'Italy's darling' escaped all criticism, however, and he now looks back on that moment with a wry grin: "I can still remember all the tension there was during that game. Luckily for me, it was a free miss."
A European Cup winner with Juventus in 1985, Cabrini collected his last international cap against Switzerland on 17 October 1987, the year after his third and final FIFA World Cup – where he was an ever present again in an Italy side that lost their grip on the trophy with a second-round defeat by France. Still closely involved in the game, he identifies the attributes of the perfect coach as being "a mix between the thirst for victory and cunning of Giovanni Trapattoni and the extraordinary humanism of Enzo Bearzot".
|24/06/1978||Buenos Aires||BRA||2:1 (0:1)||ITA||Match for third place|
|21/06/1978||Buenos Aires||NED||2:1 (0:1)||ITA||Second round|
|18/06/1978||Buenos Aires||ITA||1:0 (1:0)||AUT||Second round|
|14/06/1978||Buenos Aires||FRG||0:0||ITA||Second round|
|10/06/1978||Buenos Aires||ITA||1:0 (0:0)||ARG||Group matches|
|06/06/1978||Mar Del Plata||ITA||3:1 (2:0)||HUN||Group matches|
|02/06/1978||Mar Del Plata||ITA||2:1 (1:1)||FRA||Group matches|