For a man who historically lives within the shadow of the legendary Dino Zoff, Enrico Albertosi is the owner of a startlingly successful, eventful and eclectic career.
Born in Pontremoli, nestled within the hills of Tuscany in late-1939, Albertosi followed in the footsteps of his goalkeeping father by joining the local team when he was only 14. Within a year he’d been picked up by Spezia, a modest club who were battling for a place in a heavily restructured Serie C.
Appearing only four times, Albertosi impressed, and the potential he had shown in these games won him a transfer to Fiorentina in the summer of 1958. By January 1959, he had made his Serie A debut, keeping Roma at bay during a goalless draw at the Stadio Olimpico. It was a performance that immediately marked him out as a star of the future.
Not everything was plain sailing for Albertosi, however. Standing in his way of becoming the first-choice goalkeeper at the Stadio Artemio Franchi was the outstanding Giuliano Sarti. It led to an uneasy situation where two of Italian football’s most talented goalkeepers could not be condensed into one position. It was a rivalry that would continue until Sarti left Fiorentina for Inter in 1963.
Over this period, Sarti largely remained Fiorentina’s Serie A custodian, restricting Albertosi to just 30 league games throughout his first five seasons at the club. In turn, Albertosi was often handed the duties during cup games. He was in the team when they won both the Coppa Italia and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961, and he also kept goal in the 1962 Cup Winners’ Cup final replay, after Sarti had played in the initial game.
That 1962 replay didn’t take place until early-September, almost five months after the original game, by which time the 1962 World Cup finals had taken place. As a peculiarity, of Fiorentina’s two goalkeepers, it was Albertosi who was called up to make the trip to Chile, as Italy’s third-choice stopper. He had made his first appearance for the Azzurri in June 1961, in Florence, in a 4-1 victory over Argentina, just four days after he had helped Fiorentina lift the Coppa Italia.
Albertosi finally became La Viola’s undisputed number one in the wake of Sarti’s departure for the San Siro. Within this, he had to show a huge amount of character to bounce back from a calamitous performance in that 1962 Cup Winners’ Cup final replay. In a 3-0 loss against Atlético Madrid, Albertosi was glaringly at fault for all the goals.
Character promptly shown, for the next five seasons Albertosi was imperious for Fiorentina. The Coppa Italia was won in 1966 along with the Mitropa Cup. Throughout this time, they never finished outside the top five in Serie A.
Sarti meanwhile, went on to the most refined of successes with Inter, winning two Scudetti, a brace of European Cups and back-to-back Intercontinental Cups. Albertosi’s rivalry with him was transferred to the international stage. They shared duties for Italy during the qualifiers for the 1966 World Cup.
In England, Albertosi embraced his second World Cup by being Edmondo Fabbri’s first-choice keeper. Remarkably, Sarti failed to make the squad at all. Italy limped out of the tournament spectacularly when beaten by North Korea at Ayresome Park. Collectively, the national team might well have been pelted with tomatoes upon their return home, yet individually, Albertosi was relatively untarnished.
Fabbri paid for Italy’s 1966 World Cup failure with his job. Until the appointment of Ferruccio Valcareggi a year later, the Azzurri were guided by a technical collective of coaches and administrators, inclusive of Helenio Herrera. With the influence of Herrera, Sarti initially returned to the national team. Valcareggi reversed that change as soon as he took over, however, and it gave birth to a new rivalry for Albertosi.
As Sarti began to fade in significance, the indelible rise of Dino Zoff gained pace, and one of calcio’s most enduring rivalries was born. As the two-legged quarter-finals of the 1968 European Championship rolled into view, Albertosi was the clear number one, with Zoff the watchful number two.
Italy were beaten 3-2 by Bulgaria in the first leg in Sofia. When Dinko Tsvetkov put the home side 2-1 up, Albertosi was injured in the build-up, dropping to the turf heavily after an uncompromising collision that should have seen the visitors awarded a free-kick. It was a nervy Zoff who climbed from the bench to complete the match.
With Albertosi failing to recover in time for the return game at the San Paolo in Naples, Zoff was much more commanding at what was, at the time, his home stadium. A 2-0 victory not only sent Italy into the four-team finals, but also opened the door for them to host the tournament.
For Albertosi, it gave him a race against time to prove his fitness for the 1968 European Championship finals. Named by Valcareggi in the squad and handed the number one shirt, the place in goal was his to claim. Uncertain that Albertosi had fully recovered, Valcareggi opted to take no risks and, with the number 22 on his back, it was Zoff who starred in goal for Italy as they went on to win the title for what remains the one and only time.
A summer that could be described as sweet and sour for Albertosi, along with watching Zoff steal his international thunder, he had also contended that it was time to move on from Fiorentina. Inter made their move, but having handed over Sarti to them five years earlier, La Viola were unwilling to do business over yet another international goalkeeper of theirs.
Even more determined to leave Florence, Albertosi agreed to head to Sardinia, to join Cagliari. With the art of timing apparently against him once again, in the first season beyond his departure from the Artemio Franchi, Fiorentina won the Scudetto, with Cagliari trailing in as runners-up. They were also runners-up in the Coppa Italia.
On the international scene, Zoff’s exploits in 1968 left Albertosi on the sidelines as the qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup began. Of the four games Italy played during qualification, Zoff was on duty in three, while Albertosi played only once. The 1969/70 season saw a dramatic upturn in fortunes for Albertosi, however.
Albertosi responded to the rise of Zoff by having the season of his life. In one of the great Serie A seasons, Cagliari swept to the title, finishing four points clear of Inter, conceding just 11 goals. Albertosi was joined in the Italy squad for Mexico 70 by five of his club teammates, in addition to Roberto Boninsegna, another former Cagliari player who had left the previous summer.
A difficult decision to be made between Albertosi and Zoff, Valcareggi chose Serie A’s title-winning goalkeeper to be his first-choice custodian in Mexico. Zoff hadn’t had a bad season, by any means, finishing sixth with Napoli, while only three stoppers had conceded fewer goals than he had, but the record-breaking low number of goals shipped by Albertosi had been almost half the amount that had flown past Zoff.
Italy reached the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup at the cost of only one goal against. From there, however, the tournament took a hugely surreal turn for Albertosi and the Azzurri. Against West Germany, one of the most stunning games in World Cup history was played out at the Estadio Azteca. On the brink of a fourth clean sheet of the tournament and an almost formulaic progression to the final, Albertosi was unexpectedly beaten by Karl-Heinz Schnellinger’s 90th-minute equaliser.
It was the only goal Schnellinger ever scored at international level, and in the five years he had been an AC Milan player, he had never managed a Serie A goal for them. He would depart the San Siro four years later, still having never scored a league goal for the club. To say Schnellinger had been an unlikely goalscoring hero was the understatement to end all understatements. That it was a goal scored against the almost unbreachable Albertosi was even more incredulous.
By the end of extra-time, Italy had prevailed in a physically punishing game 4-3. In the final against Brazil, Albertosi would be beaten four more times, in the most iconic way imaginable. It is, of course, Albertosi whom Carlos Alberto swept that emblematic fourth goal past in the 1970 World Cup final. A man who had conceded only 11 league goals all season in Serie A had brutally been on the receiving end of a seven-goal avalanche in less than 120 minutes of football in Mexico. It says so much that Albertosi wasn’t glaringly at error for any of them.
An impossible campaign to follow, 1970/71 was a marked disappointment for Albertosi. Initially retaining his place as Valcareggi’s first-choice goalkeeper for Italy, by February, Zoff had usurped him once again, while Cagliari’s defence of their Serie A title proved to be a weak one, and their bid for European Cup glory was ended by Atlético Madrid in the second round.
With the pressure of expectation lowered for the 1971/72 season, Cagliari were again in the reckoning for the title, eventually finishing fourth, but only four points behind the champions, Juventus. Albertosi found his form once more, and when Zoff was injured prior to the two-legged quarter-final of the 1972 European Championship, he was called upon yet again, this time to face Belgium.
A goalless draw in Milan was followed by a 2-1 defeat in Brussels, meaning that Albertosi and Italy missed out on the chance to defend their title in the finals. The following month, Albertosi unwittingly played his last game for Italy in a friendly against Bulgaria in Sofia.
As Zoff made his move to Juventus and the domestic honours started to roll his way on a regular basis, Albertosi’s great rival became Valcareggi’s undisputed number one. So all-encompassing was his presence that, from the autumn of 1972 to the very end of 1977, no other goalkeeper started a senior Italian international match other than Zoff.
Remaining involved, however, Albertosi was in the Italy squad for the 1974 World Cup finals, his fourth World Cup. The call-ups eventually dried up in 1975, although there was an unsuccessful campaign from the media and the public to try to get him into Enzo Bearzot’s squad for the 1978 World Cup.
As the threat of Cagliari began to drift, Albertosi was picked up by Milan after the 1974 World Cup, despite the fact he was fast approaching 35. It was to be a glorious Indian Summer at the highest level of the domestic game, but one which would be abruptly ended in the inglorious stigma of the Totonero scandal of 1980.
Another Coppa Italia winners medal was collected by Albertosi in 1977, beating Inter in an all-Milan showpiece, while he won a second Scudetto title in 1978/79, holding off the threat of an undefeated Perugia. Albertosi proved to be the stable goalkeeping influence that the Rossoneri had lacked since the retirement of Fabio Cudicini.
When the police swooped in March 1980, this all came to an end. Tarred with the same brush that so many others were, inclusive of Paolo Rossi, Albertosi’s punishment was a four-year ban, while Milan were demoted to Serie B, along with Lazio. Aged 40, this effectively meant his career was over.
When Italy won the World Cup in 1982, however, a jubilant Italian Football Federation reduced the punishments of a swathe of players, inclusive of Albertosi. By now 42, it would have been easy for him to stay away from the professional football pitches of Italy. Yet, he agreed to join Elpidiense of Serie C2, with whom he played for two years until his retirement in 1984.
A man blessed by an incredible career, a man who played in the iconic 1970 World Cup final, and a man who won an unthinkable Serie A title with Cagliari – to go along with the glories he enjoyed with both Fiorentina and Milan – Albertosi has often been viewed as the man who could have had the career that Zoff had. This is a disingenuous theory, of course, as Albertosi himself was the envy of most Italian goalkeepers. Blessed to have been involved in some of calcio’s finest moments, who needs to be Zoff when you’re Albertosi?
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74