How the pragmatic Cesare Maldini led Italy’s exciting under-21s to three straight European titles

How the pragmatic Cesare Maldini led Italy’s exciting under-21s to three straight European titles

From cup finals to Olympic Games and even Formula One, the Estadio de Montjuic had seen it all in the first seven decades since its inauguration. Few events, however, could match the final of the 1996 Under-21 European Championship for sheer drama. Italy took the lead within ten minutes through an own goal from Inigo Idiakez, before Raul restored parity in the closing stages of the first half after Nicola Amoruso had been sent off.

Already with their backs firmly against wall, Italy’s ordeal took a turn for the worse when Raffaele Ametrano was given his marching orders a minute before the end of the first half in extra-time. The Azzurrini somehow survived the count and ensured the game would be decided from 12 yards. 

Domenico Morfeo kept his nerve, slotting the crucial penalty past Juan Luis Mora after Angelo Pagotto had denied Ivan de la Pena and Raul. Italy became the first team in history to win the tournament three times in a row, an achievement which has not been matched since.

For Cesare Maldini, the man who had overseen each of those triumphs, the final in Barcelona marked the crowning moment of a journey that had begun a decade earlier – ironically after Italy had lost the final to Spain.

In 1986, Italian football was in state of transition. The flames of the triumph in 1982 had been almost completely extinguished by a disappointing World Cup campaign in Mexico, while the glitz and glamour of Italia 90 were still four years away. While Serie A already boasted the kind of domestic and foreign talent that would make it the best league in the world in the coming decade, the national side was drifting.

To steady the ship of La Nazionale, the Italian Football Federation opted to promote from within and Azeglio Vicini succeeded Enzo Bearzot at the helm. To replace the newly-appointed national team coach, the Italian FA then turned to Maldini, who had served as the national team’s assistant manager from 1980 to 1986.

After six years as Bearzot’s understudy, Maldini might have fancied his chances to land the top job. After all, he was far from a novice at managerial level and had won a Coppa Italia and a Cup Winners’ Cup during a two-year spell in charge of AC Milan. Being overlooked for the role of Bearzot’s successor might have seemed a snub in the eyes of many, but Maldini simply got on with the job. It could hardly have been otherwise, given he, just as his mentor Nereo Rocco had before him, embodied the pragmatism typical of Trieste and its people.

If Barcelona provided the stage for his sporting immortality, it was Växjö, a town in eastern Sweden, where Maldini first reaped the fruits of his tenure in charge of the Azzurrini. In June 1992, Italy were on the verge of a first continental triumph at under-21 level as they travelled to Scandinavia for the second leg of the European Championship final – the last to be played on a home-and-away basis, as the format would change two years later.

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Renato Buso and Gianluca Sordo had struck late in the second half to give Italy a 2-0 win in the first leg in Ferrara, which proved crucial as Pascal Simpson’s solitary goal in the return match wasn’t enough for Sweden. With Demetrio Albertini pulling the strings in midfield Italy boasted one of the finest midfielders in Europe, well supplemented by the attacking talent of Roberto Muzzi, Alessandro Melli and by Buso’s versatility. Indeed, the latter would be named player of the tournament. 

Among the pre-tournament favourites, the Azzurrini were determined to atone for their predecessors’ performances in the previous two editions, when they had fallen painfully short. In 1988, Italy had lost 4-3 on aggregate to France in the quarter-finals, conceding twice in the last ten minutes of the game in both legs. Two years later, Yugoslavia had put paid to their hopes, progressing to the final by virtue of away goals. 

Reaching the final, never mind winning it, couldn’t have been further from Maldini’s mind when his team were trounced 6-0 by Norway in the qualifying stage. Italy eventually recovered from the initial slump and secured a 2-1 win in the reverse fixture, which saw them progress at Norway’s expense.

Wins over Czechoslovakia and Denmark paved the way for the showdown with Sweden and, six years after replacing Vicini, Maldini and Italy had their first continental title.

The champagne had barely finished by the time the focus switched on retaining the trophy, as the tournament’s protracted qualifying stages meant only three months had elapsed from the win over Sweden by the time Maldini was back on the training pitch; such is the nature of age-group competitions that building on a winning core as managers are allowed to do at senior level is seldom possible. Root and branch changes, in terms of personnel if not philosophy, are often preferred over minor tweaks, not out of choice but necessity as some players are no longer eligible. 

Maldini waved goodbye to a large chunk of his very own Class of ’92, but he could not begrudge the hand he was dealt as the players who were blooded into team were arguably even more formidable than their predecessors. Francesco Toldo, Fabio Cannavaro and Christian Panucci were among those promoted to team, shaping one of the best back lines the tournament had ever seen. A look at what the trio achieved during their professional lives speaks volumes for the amount of talent Maldini was blessed with.

Meanwhile, fellow new recruits Filippo Inzaghi and Christian Vieri provided the offensive threat, planting the seeds for two illustrious careers. Curiously, Inzaghi replaced Vieri at Atalanta in 1996 and then again at Juventus a season later.

The duo, however, were kept quiet in the final stage. In fact, aside from Vieri’s opener in the quarter-finals against Czechoslovakia, of the four goals Italy scored in the final phase of the tournament, none was netted by a forward. Panucci and fellow defender Paolo Negro were on the scoresheet during the 3-0 win over the Czechoslovakians and Pierluigi Orlandini scored the winner in the final against Portugal. 

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Italy might not have scored many goals, but their back four’s parsimony ensured they didn’t concede many either. Toldo was beaten only once during the final phase, as Italy lost the return leg of the quarter-finals 1-0. In the semi-final, the Azzurrini and a France side containing Zinedine Zidane, Christophe Dugarry and Lilian Thuram cancelled each other out for 120 minutes. Claude Makelele missed from the spot, before Benito Carbone converted the decisive penalty as Italy eventually progressed at the hosts’ expenses.

Zidane, Dugarry and Thuram would take their revenge on Maldini four years later as Les Bleus knocked prevailed on penalties in the quarter-final of the 1998 World Cup against Italy.

With France in the rear view mirror, another prodigiously talented team stood between Italy and a second consecutive triumph. Portugal boasted an almost embarrassing riches of offensive talent, with eventual player of the tournament Luis Figo and Rui Costa providing the creative spark alongside the attacking duo of Joao Pinto and Sa Pinto.

Depicted as a showdown between Portuguese flair and Italian’s defensive organisation, the final in Montpellier lived up to its stereotype. Portugal, who had knocked out Spain in the semis, summoned all its offensive weapons, but Italy resolutely refused to budge. Time and again, the Azzurrini withstood everything Portugal threw at them and forced the game into extra-time.

Any concerns a second 120-minute game in five days could be Italy’s undoing was swiftly dismissed as Orlandini scored the winner seven minutes into the first half of extra-time, shortly after replacing Inzaghi. Despite their attacking talent, Portugal couldn’t find a way past Toldo and Italy became only the second team to successfully defend the title after England had first achieved the feat in 1982 and 1984.

In many ways, the introduction of Orlandini for Inzaghi epitomised Maldini’s philosophy. A man who always considered pragmatism a quality rather than a hindrance, the former Milan manager might never have been a tactical innovator in the mould of Arrigo Sacchi or Nereo Rocco but was a master in the often forgotten art of maximising his team’s strengths.

Unsurprisingly for a man who had spent his entire career as a classy but uncompromising centre-half, Maldini organised his defence with maniacal precision. The rear guard remained one of Italy’s main assets in 1996 as Maldini overhauled his squad yet again following the triumph in France. 

Panucci and Cannavaro, two of the pillars of the 1994 title, were still eligible and joined by Alessandro Nesta. A precocious centre-back playing with a maturity that belied his age, the Lazio defender had already turned several heads in Serie A, as had two outrageously talented forwards.

Order  |  Calcio II  

In Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero, Italy possessed two of European football’s rising stars. If Serie A had been known for its suffocating defences throughout the 1980s, the duo embodied a new wave of attacking talent that would grace pitches across the peninsula for the next two decades.

To Maldini’s credit, he not only managed to get the two starlets to coexist on the pitch; he also successfully sheltered them from public pressure and allowed them to express themselves. Though he was committed to a defensive style of football, encouraging flair players to thrive was a staple of his footballing philosophy.

Ironically, the former Milan manager would face a similar issue two years later during the 1998 World Cup, when Del Piero and Roberto Baggio vied for a starting spot. Tactically astute, man management was by far Maldini’s biggest strength. “I learned so much from him,” Milan great Franco Baresi told the Guardian following his former manager’s passing in 2016. “He was important and key in passing on the kind of values that we so often forget.”

As former Milan great Mauro Tassotti put it, there was something almost poignant about how a man moulded in a different era could transfer his principles to men 40 years his junior. “He was a part of several eras of the game,” Tassotti, who played over 400 games for AC Milan, explained. “In my view he took that benevolence that existed in the 1960s and modernised it.”

Aside from Totti and Del Piero, Vieri remained part of the group, while Roma forward Marco Delvecchio was among the new additions up front. Though he did not possess Totti’s superb technique or his range of passing, Delvecchio’s versatility and selflessness were much appreciated by Maldini, who often asked his forwards to contribute defensively.

With Toldo no longer eligible, Pagotto and a raw 17-year-old full of promise named Gianluigi Buffon battled it out for a starting spot between the posts.

Talented though Italy were, the qualifying stage proved far from a straightforward affair. The Azzurrini lost just once but won their group by the slimmest of margins, finishing a point ahead of Ukraine and two ahead of Slovenia.

Italy’s bid for an unprecedented third consecutive title got off to an inauspicious start, losing 1-0 in Portugal in the first leg of the quarter-finals. Any hopes the Esperancas had avenging the defeat from two years earlier, however, quickly vanished in the second leg when Italy scored either side of half-time to book a ticket to the semis.

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Another familiar foe awaited in the last four, where Totti’s solitary goal saw off France. Introduced at half-time, the Roma starlet found the net within three minutes, before Italy kept Les Bleus – who had Patrick Vieira sent off hallway through the second half – at bay.

A third consecutive final beckoned and Italy successfully quietened Barcelona raucous crowd early on. However, once Amoruso was sent off and Spain equalised the odds looked stacked against Maldini’s men. Italy wobbled but refused to hit the canvas even after being reduced to nine men following Ametrano’s red card. By then, even Maldini’s proverbially unflappable composure had looked to be slipping away, but his side dug deep and forced the game to penalties. 

Alongside Raul and Ivan de la Pena, Spain boasted the likes of Gaizka Mendieta and Fernando Morientes, but as had been the case two years earlier, Italy’s resolute defence successfully neutralised one of the most exciting teams in the tournament. 

Having failed to make the numerical advantage count in front of a partisan crowd, Spain bucked under the pressure as Pagotto saved de la Pena and Raul’s attempts and Italy secured an unprecedented third consecutive title.

History now made, for Maldini it was soon time to join some of his stars in making the step up to the senior team, where he replaced Sacchi who had endured a torrid time at Euro 96. However, there was to be no repeat of the triumphs he had enjoyed with the Azzurrini. Maldini piloted Italy to the 1998 World Cup, where his side came within inches of knocking France out in the quarter-finals at the Stade de France. 

Unfortunately for them, as Roberto Baggio’s volley fizzled just wide of the post, so did their chances. It was then left to penalties, which had so often smiled benignly on Maldini’s under-21 teams, to provide a sad epitaph to his spell in charge as France progressed to the semi-finals.

While Italy exited the World Cup unbeaten, criticism rained on their manager, largely because of what detractors perceived to be an overly-defensive brand of football. As dignified and humble as ever, Maldini stepped aside and returned to work for AC Milan, this time as a scout.

In the 23 years since the triumph against Spain, the Azzurrini have won the Under-21 Championship twice and have reached the final on another occasion. None of them, however, have had the same impact as the hat-trick of titles delivered by Cesare Maldini, a man who stands unmatched at that level. 

By Dan Cancian @dan_cancian

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