Italy 1-1 Yugoslavia at Euro 68: Tito’s men hold the Italian line

Italy 1-1 Yugoslavia at Euro 68: Tito’s men hold the Italian line

This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE

In the Stadio San Paolo, Naples, three days ago, a whole nation had held its collective breath. Italy and the USSR were still goalless after extra time and the decision as to which team would progress to the final of the European Championship rested upon the tossing of a coin, there apparently being no fairer method of deciding the tie. Surely this is something FIFA need to re-examine?

The Neapolitan crowd anxiously bowed their head in prayer awaiting the outcome. The Italian captain Giacinto Facchetti called correctly and, for the first time since 1938, Italy were to play in the final of a major competition. The tifosi offered their undying gratitude to the city’s patron saint San Gennaro who had seemingly delivered a miracle for the Azzurri. 

A crowd of 68,817 crammed into the Stadio Olimpico to watch the host nation face a strong Yugoslavia outfit who had defeated the World Cup holders England in the semi-final just a few days before. Despite the lateness of the kick-off time by British standards, the local populace were just getting into their swing, drunk on anticipation.

Millions of Italians gathered in their homes, cafes, and bars to watch the game on television. The strada were deserted, a nation awaited and expected. The bottles of Chianti were waiting to be uncorked. Except, perhaps, in the Adriatic port city of Trieste, which had long been a historical source of dispute between the two countries and where a significant number would be backing the Balkan representatives.

The two sides were undoubtedly suffering from the effects of their gruelling semi-final clashes. Italian coach Ferruccio Valcareggi lost the services of the injured Gianni Rivera and controversially chose not to gamble with the fitness of Sandro Mazzola, who had been suffering with kidney problems, replacing him with Juventus striker Pietro Anastasi. The continued absence of the prolific Luigi Riva continued to baffle the fans.

For the opposition, the absence of delicate playmaker Ivica Osim was a massive blow to hopes. In effect, both sides were missing their stars and the final would inevitably suffer as a result.

Prior to the game, the Yugoslav coach Rajko Mitić seemed to deliberately add to the pressure on the hosts by boldly declaring, “We have already beaten the world champions, it seems obvious that we can repeat this against Italy.”

Inspired by their win over England they started strongly, imposing their fluid style of play on the Azzurri. Not for nothing are they often referred to as the “Brazil of the Balkans”. Winger Dragan Džajić was tormenting the Italian defence as full-back Tarciscio Burnigh struggled to contain him. Eventually, the relentless pressure from the Yugoslavs told. On 39 minutes, Dobrivoje Trivić pulled the ball across the Italian area where it found Džajić. His first touch was poor, but he swiftly recovered to hammer the ball past the advancing Dino Zoff in goal. It was a deserved lead.

As the white-shirted Balkan side sat back to protect their lead, Italy, urged on by the vociferous Roman legions, launched a wave of attacks to no avail. Despite being under constant pressure, the Yugoslavs still managed to construct counter-attacks as Jovan Aćimović and Vahidin Musemić missed opportunities to seal the game.

With just ten minutes remaining, the Plavi were starting to believe that a victory parade on the streets of Belgrade followed by a celebratory banquet with General Tito at his holiday residence in the Brionian Islands was a distinct possibility. But that was about to change.

As Giovanni Lodetti jumped with Blagoje Paunović to win a header on the arc of the penalty area, he crashed to the floor in a manner more suited to a performance at La Scala in Milan. The referee, Gottfried Dienst, who many outside of England would claim had displayed a propensity for decisions in favour of the host nation after his performance in the 1966 World Cup final, controversially awarded the Italians a free-kick. Despite the vociferous protests of the white-shirted defenders, the decision stood.

The Yugoslavs were uncharacteristically disorganised in preparing to defend the free-kick. Angelo Domeghini stepped up and, from outside the penalty area, drillled a shot through a slight gap in the defensive wall to level the match. As the querulous defenders looked at each other, wondering how the Iron Curtain had been breached, Domeghini ran across the athletics track to celebrate with the rejoicing Roman crowd.

The cheers could be heard echoing around the whole of Italy as generations of supporters celebrated. Italy had waited nearly 200 minutes for the team to score on home soil in the final stages of this championship. The waiting was over.

With time ticking away, the tide was turning in favour of the home side. The question was whether they could deliver the killer punch. The opposition regained their composure and spirit to cling on until full-time, meaning an extra 30 minutes would be needed to see who could claim the trophy.

Coming so soon after the semi-finals, the additional period of play proved too much for two extremely fatigued sides, both teams had their opportunities. In the first period, Musemić fired a shot narrowly wide and, after the break, another free-kick from Domeghini went close. After an evenly balanced and closely fought contest, the two countries couldn’t be separated. 

As the final whistle blew, some fans were still unsure of what would happen next. Many lingered in the stadium expecting a toss of the coin to decide the victor. Fortunately, Europe’s most prestigious competition was not about to be awarded on the flick of a coin. A replay would be needed at the same stadium in just two days’ time.

Most Italians began to make their plans to watch the game, whilst the Yugoslav contingent would have to await permission from General Tito to stay in Rome for longer than their travel permits were intended.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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