Apart from in 1930, when they did not enter, and in 1958, when they failed to qualify, Italy have been involved in all of the other 16 FIFA World Cup™ finals. This consistency highlights the character of a national team that always seems more at home in competitive games than in friendlies.
Italy is a footballing nation par excellence where, for a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon, normal life plays second fiddle to the cut and thrust of Serie A. The elite league has managed to keep hold of its best talent down the years, and has never failed to provide legendary players prepared to fight for the national cause.
This was already the case as early as 1934 and 38, the era of Italy's first two FIFA World Cup final triumphs, over Czechoslovakia (2-1) and then Hungary (4-2). Under the stewardship of Vittorio Pozzo, the Nazionale were led by such charismatic figures as Giuseppe Meazza, Giovanni Ferrari, Angelo Schiavo, and Silvio Piola.
After the war, Italy underwent a lengthy barren spell, the low point coming with their 1966 defeat by Korea DPR in Middlesbrough, one of the biggest shocks in FIFA World Cup history.
But the iron grip exerted by Italian club sides on European football soon helped re-energise the Squadra Azzurra, which first lifted the European Championship in 1968, before contesting and winning an historic FIFA World Cup semi-final 4-3 against West Germany in 1970 in Mexico. The side featuring such luminaries as Giacinto Facchetti, Gianni Rivera, Alessandro Mazzola, Luigi Riva and Roberto Boninsegna may have lost the final 4-1 to Brazil, but that semi-final lingered long in the memory.
In 1982 in Spain, Italy's third world title success was due in no small part to the displays of their goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff (aged 40 at the time), along with Marco Tardelli, Franco Baresi and the striker Paolo Rossi, who burst into dramatic life in the knockout stages to net a hat-trick against Brazil and a brace against Poland.
During the 1990s, the generation led by Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio and Roberto Donadoni - the current coach - were to fall victim to a penalty shootout jinx which saw them lose out on spot kicks at three consecutive editions of football's showpiece event. At home in 1990, they lost in the semi-final against Argentina, then to Brazil in the final in 1994, before slipping to agonising defeat in the 1998 quarter-final against France. They would also lose out to France's golden goal in extra-time of the final of UEFA EURO 2000. Then in 2002, this unbelievable run of bad luck persisted with their elimination at the last 16 stage at the hands of Korea Republic.
Finally, at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, with Italian football mired in controversy due to a scandal involving some of the country's most powerful clubs, the Nazionale grew in stature as the tournament progressed. They reached the Final before at last coming out on top in a penalty shootout, this time with France. Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro and Andrea Pirlo were the star performers for a team in the throes of transition as highly promising young performers such as Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Manuele Blasi, Mauro Esposito, Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta began to emerge.
Many of these players were responsible for propelling Italy into the EURO 2008 finals, courtesy of a first-placed finish above France and Scotland in their pool. In Austria and Switzerland, Italy had a modest tournament, scraping out of their first-round group before losing to eventual champions Spain in a penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw.
Following this result, which was largely perceived as a failure for the world champions, Marcelo Lippi returned to the national team post in place of Roberto Donadoni.