Enzo Bearzot: Italian football coach who led the Azzurri to World Cup glory in 1982

It is rare that a coach changes the football culture of a nation to its advantage and satisfaction. Several England managers have tried, without success, to bring a Continental possession-based style to the national team; various Brazilian managers, including World Cup winners, have been vilified for imposing a greater pragmatism on the purveyors of the beautiful game; at this year's World Cup, Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach, reached the final but at a price; a team admired for three decades of playing "total football" was reduced to clogging.

Enzo Bearzot was an exception. He transformed the approach of the Azzurri, Italy's national team, from one of cynical, defensive brutality to enterprising attack. He also steered Italy to triumph in the 1982 World Cup finals, their first such success in 44 years. Either one of these achievements would deserve acclaim; to manage both earned him legendary status in the passionate world of calcio. Thus the outpouring of grief and tributes when Bearzot died on Tuesday after a long illness, aged 83.

It was not always so. Fortunate is the coach who does not experience some period of intense, often unreasonable criticism. Like Sir Bobby Robson in his early years as England manager, or Sir Alex Ferguson in his initial period at Manchester United, Bearzot was trashed before he was hailed. In the opening stages of the 1982 finals the abuse from the Italian media was so vituperative, and personal, he spoke of having "a Brutus at my back". The squad imposed silenzio stampa, a ban on talking to the press. This only intensified the criticism, but it also helped to bond the team. Italy, who had played poorly in the early stages, subsequently lifted the trophy with a series of impressive performances. The pipe-smoking Bearzot confronted his tormentors not with reproach, but champagne, asking them to join him in a toast, "Forza Italia".

Bearzot's triumph was a long time in the making. Born in the country's north-east, near Udine, the bank manager's son enjoyed a long playing career. He was primarily a defensive midfielder, a position often entrusted to players with an understanding of the game. He played once for Italy, and more than 250 times in Serie A, Italy's elite division, being twice employed by Internazionale and Torino. He moved into coaching with the latter before becoming a head coach with a lowly Serie C club, Prato. He soon switched to work for the Italian federation, initially at under-23 level, then as an assistant to the national team. It was in this capacity he saw at close hand the Azzurri's disintegration at the 1974 World Cup when, riven by in-fighting, they went out in ignominy.

A year later, despite criticism that he lacked practical experience, he became the national coach. A principled man, and an admirer of the Dutch "total football" (which involved players being flexible in their positions, a contrast to Italian football's regimented game), he began to effect a sea change in the team's attitude, seeking to rid it of the negativity that bedevilled Serie A.

That he was making progress became clear at the 1978 World Cup, for which he omitted Fabio Capello, effectively ending the current England coach's international career. Bearzot was famously close to his players, but not that close. "I saw it announced on television," Capello has recalled.

Unusually for a conservative football culture, Bearzot included several young players, including the promising young striker Paolo Rossi. Italy began well, beating the hosts, Argentina, before running out of steam and losing to the Dutch in a de facto semi-final. They had led 1-0; a traditional Italian team would have sought to close down the game – but Bearzot's did not.

Despite this, and a disappointing European Championship on home soil, Bearzot held on to his job for the 1982 finals. For this he controversially recalled Rossi, who had just returned from a two-year ban for his part in a match-fixing scandal.

It seemed a foolish move, for Rossi struggled to find match sharpness as Italy stumbled through the first group stage with three dull draws. Paired with Argentina and Brazil in the second stage, an exit seemed inevitable, but both were defeated, the latter in thrilling fashion, Rossi scoring a hat-trick. This is regarded as one of the great World Cup matches. Amid the plaudits, though, there was a caveat. Bearzot was a moralist, but he was not above utilising an enforcer. The inappropriately named Claudio Gentile took the role in 1982, kicking a young Diego Maradona out of the Argentina game.

Italy cruised past Poland in the semi-final then, in an indication of the composed atmosphere Bearzot had built, overcame the anxiety of a missed penalty, and the early loss of a key player, to brush West Germany aside in the final.

Bearzot should probably have quit there and then, but he stayed on for another four years, leaving after a wan defence of the trophy in 1986. He was out of the game for 16 years – during which, it is said, he indulged his love of literature – before accepting the post of technical director of the Italian coaching federation. He retired for good in 2005, but his influence lingered. The following year, Marcello Lippi, to whom Bearzot had been something of a mentor, steered Italy to their first World Cup success since Bearzot's.

Bearzot once said of his philosophy: "I select my players and then I let them play the game, without trying to impose tactical plans on them. You can't tell Maradona, 'Play the way I tell you'. You have to leave him free to express himself." Later he noted: "Coaching Italy was a vocation which has become a profession. Football has become a science, but for me it's still first and foremost a game."

Glenn Moore

Enzo Bearzot, football coach: born Aiello del Friuli 26 September 1927; married Luisa (one son, one daughter); died Milan 21 December 2010.

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