Italy 2-0 Yugoslavia at Euro 68: the Riva-Mazzola masterclass that crowned Italy European champions

Italy 2-0 Yugoslavia at Euro 68: the Riva-Mazzola masterclass that crowned Italy European champions

This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE

After the 1-1 draw two days ago in the Stadio Olimpico, Italy and Yugoslavia faced each other again in a replay to decide who would be crowned as the winners of the third European Championship. For the host nation, scoring goals had been the problem with the side netting just once in their last 240 minutes of football. If the trophy was to be lifted, this had to be rectified. 

On the other hand, Yugoslavia needed to recover from the disappointment of letting the trophy slip from their grasp when the Italians equalised with ten minutes remaining in the first final. Close but no cigar. It would be a challenge for them to perform to those high levels again with their playing resources stretched to the limit.

The Yugoslavs were secretly pleased that the match referee was the Spaniard Jose Maria Otiz de Mendibil. Undoubtedly, they felt that the decision of referee Gottfried Dienst to award Italy a late free-kick had cost them their chance of winning the original contest.

After extra time on Saturday, fatigue was also likely to be a decisive factor. Yugoslavia coach Rajko Mitic named an unchanged starting XI whereas their opponents looked set to use the full resources of their playing squad.

The Italian media had been critical of the coach Ferruccio Valcereggi for his team selection for the first game. For this encounter he responded by making five changes, the most significant being the return of Inter’s Sandro Mazzola, and to the relief of an entire nation, the selection of the prolific Luigi Riva of Cagliari to lead the attack.

The replay was arranged so swiftly that it appeared to have caught most of the Italian public by surprise. Many had returned home from their weekend in Rome and were unable to travel back, while the cost of an extra fixture in a country racked by a marked economic downturn proved too prohibitive for most peones. As such, 36,000 fewer supporters than on Saturday made it to the stadium for the final. The onus was now on the Azzurri to give the fans something to shout about.

Matters didn’t commence in the best of fashion for the Balkan side as, in the pre-match warm-up, key midfielder Ilija Petković suffered a stomach problem and was replaced by Idriz Hošić. From the kick-off, it was immediately apparent that the host nation, with their five changes, looked like a side transformed. The Plavi, in stark contrast, looked completely drained of vim and energy.

Italy took the game to their opponents, creating early chances to score for Pietro Anastasi and Riva. Defensively, they looked impregnable. Dragan Džajić, who had tormented Tarcisio Burnigh in the first final, now found himself unable to shake off the shackles of his marker. The only question was whether Italy could turn their superiority into goals. The answer was about to arrive.

After 12 minutes, Angelo Domenghini, who had been Italy’s hero on Saturday, tried a shot from the edge of the area. It took a wicked deflection and landed at the feet of Riva, somehow left unmarked in the six-yard area. Controlling the ball with one touch, he dispatched it into the corner of Ilija Pantelić’s net. With his first opportunity, the Sardinian assassin had duly delivered.

Italy surged forward to make their advantage count with Pantelić forced to make several saves to keep Plavi in the match. On the 31-minute mark, Anastasi received a pass from Giancarlo Di Sisti on the edge of the box. His initial touch allowed the ball to bounce up and, as it fell, he swivelled to unleash a venomous shot from the edge of the box to dispatch the ball into the net. It was arguably the goal of the tournament.

In a country where catenaccio was king, there was no way that this Italian side was going to throw away that advantage. At the half time interval, Yugoslavia looked bewildered and overwhelmed as they left the field.

With the trophy only 45 minutes away, in classic Italian fashion the Azzurri were content to sit back and let the Yugoslavs try to break them down. Dino Zoff was called upon to make a few routine saves but with Džajić increasingly isolated, the spark and creativity that had characterised the Plavi attack in the first game had disappeared.

Riva was unlucky to have a third goal disallowed and the host nation emerged as comfortable winners. It was a battle too far for Tito’s men. The Italians had finally shown their class when it mattered most. The return of Mazzola combined with the constant goalscoring menace of Riva proved to be decisive.

At the final whistle, the fans in the stadium celebrated wildly; flares were set off all around the terraces and those without one frantically waved burning torches to illuminate the stadium. The sound of the rejoicing tifosi chanting “Italia, Italia” reverberated around the cavernous amphitheatre. Surrounded by an ecstatic legion of fans, captain Giacinto Facchetti held the trophy aloft to show that Italy were the European champions for the first time in their rich history.

Two years earlier, Facchetti, Burgnich, Mazzola, Rosato and Salvadore returned in shame from the World Cup after their humiliation by North Korea. On arrival at the airport, they had been confronted by a seething mob who pelted them with tomatoes. The spectre of that defeat had lingered too long. The ghost of North Korea was finally laid to rest here in Rome tonight. 

For the second time in three tournaments, Yugoslavia had lost in a European final, but after claiming the scalp of World Cup holders England in the semi-finals, they could hold their heads high. One can only hope that Tito views their success in the same way.

For Italy, the victory could represent the first step on the path to a World Cup challenge in Mexico in 1970. On this evidence, they appear to be one of the strongest contenders going.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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