Rome wasn't built in a day, and fortunately for Italy, the World Cup soccer tournament lasted 29, sultry ones in Spain. That gave the slow-starting Italians time to grease the emotional and physical wheels that rolled them to a record-tying third Cup championship.
The last leg of their soccer-playing odyssey occurred in Madrid, where they toppled West Germany 3-1 in a 90,000-seat Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, which was awash with red, white, and green Italian flags. An estimated 1.5 billion people watched on TV.
As with most Cup wins, it was greeted as a national triumph by an exuberant people. First and foremost, however, it was a victory for Coach Enzo Bearzot and his blue-shirted players. Earlier in the month-long tournament, they were so roundly criticized by the Italian press that they refused to talk to reporters.The experts always seem to expect more from the Forza Azzurra than it delivers, for not since back-to-back championships in 1934 and 1938 had the Blue Force secured the cup.
When the 24-team tournament started, there was no reason to believe either Italy or West Germany, another two-time winner, would reach the final. The Italians plod listlessly through the first round with three ties, one against tiny Cameroon.West Germany, meanwhile, was dealt a startling defeat by Algeria in its opening game and then wound up a much-maligned winner over Austria in a game that had the aroma of week-old bratwurst. The Germans, critics felt, could have won decisively enough to put Algeria instead of Austria into the second round on the basis of goal-scoring differential.
Both teams, therefore, wound up in doghouses of their own making and were eager to get out. The Italians did so most spectacularly, making their way to the final by defeating defending champion Argentina; then Brazil, the only other three-time champion and this year's favorite; and finally Poland, an opponent they drew with in a scoreless first-round game.
Paolo Rossi, a black-maned striker with a nose for the net, brought the Italians to life. Coming off a two-year suspension for his alleged involvement in a betting scandal, Rossi became a one-man wrecking crew, scoring all five of his team's goals in successive victories over Brazil and Poland.
The Germans countered with their own five-goal field general in the person of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who was tied with Rossi for the World Cup scoring lead. Rummenigge, the two-time European Footballer of the Year, was the most dangerous commando on a team that had laid waste to its continental rivals. No European team had cracked West Germany's aura of invincibility in 33 games.
In a classic semifinal game, though, France nearly did. After playing to a 1 -1 tie during 90 regulation minutes, France jumped out to a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead in the first of two 15-minute overtime periods. Injured captain Rummenigge had been on the bench during regulation play, but ignited the German comeback with a goal in the OT that seemed to sap the French. The heat had something to do with it, too, as soaring temperatures took their toll throughout the tournament.
When West Germany made it 3-3, the World Cup had its first penalty shootout in a semifinal. With suspense as thick as gazpacho, the teams alternately took five penalty shots from nearly point blank. They tied by making four shots apiece, which sent the shooting gallery format into its final sudden death stage. Germany prevailed when Horst Hrubesch found the twine.
In the championship game, both teams established their characteristic tight defensive postures. Close, and sometimes questionably executed, tackling kept both teams under wraps. Italy, however, finally got a golden scoring opportunity in the first half, only to see Antonio Cabrini scuff the ground and misfire on a penalty kick, which is made better than 80 percent of the time.
Unrattled by this miscue, the Italians broke the ice with the game's first goal early in the second half.Claudio Gentile crossed the ball from the right side, and like a guided missle Rossi shot through the air to carom the ball off his head past the stunned German goalie.
This gave the Italians confidence that their counterattacking game would bear the fruit needed to hold the lead.
Using this strategy, they turn the area in front of the goal into a heavily guarded maximum security prison, where one errant pass or shot can result in a fast break to the other end. To a chorus of oles, Marco Tardelli and Alessandro Altobelli added goals to sew up the Spanish conquest.