On this day in the Euros, June 15: Italian know-how eliminates England
On this day in 1996, Paul Gascoigne scored against Scotland. But that's a well-worn story, and as it might be foolish to inflame inter-British rivalry the day before England face Wales, let’s pop a bit further back to a less well-remembered day for England. Not June 15 1988, when Marco van Basten’s hat-trick eliminated them, but eight years before that, when Ron Greenwood’s side faced Euro 80 hosts Italy.
The new decade brought a new format as the Euros expanded from four teams to eight and from five days to 12, more closely resembling the elongated festivities of the World Cup (which itself grew from 16 to 24 teams for the 1982 finals). Now, instead of landing in the semi-finals, teams had three guaranteed group games – good news for England, who had failed to reach any finals since Mexico 70.
The new decade brought a new format as the Euros expanded from four teams to eight and from five days to 12
Rejecting Brian Clough, the FA had played safe by appointing Ron Greenwood – but England sailed through qualifying unbeaten and, with English clubs having won four successive European Cups (featuring 12 of Greenwood’s squad), the Three Lions arrived in Italy strongly fancied and in the easier group. Avoiding favourites West Germany and holders Czechoslovakia, they instead faced Belgium, Spain and the hosts, who were in disarray over a match-fixing scandal.
However, Belgium held them to a 1-1 draw in a match initially illuminated by Ray Wilkins’ clever lob then interrupted by hooliganism: the Italian police fired tear gas into the crowd, causing a break in play as streaming-eyed players huddled in the centre circle.
Win or bust
With only the top team going through – there were no semi-finals at Euro 80 – and Italy scraping a 0-0 against Spain, that meant England’s June 15 game against the hosts was more or less win or bust. Not good news for Greenwood, considering Italy hadn’t been beaten at home in a decade or anywhere on continental Europe since 1961.
England started the stronger, getting the upper hand in midfield through the two Rays – Wilkins and the recalled Kennedy – but lacked a cutting edge. The Three Lions were already without key striker Trevor Francis through a ruptured Achilles, and Kevin Keegan played against Italy despite suffering after a stomach upset.
Greenwood’s big idea was Garry Birtles. Having impressed against man-markers for European champions Nottingham Forest, one-cap Birtles was included in the Euros squad with this game in mind, but he was out of his depth against wily types like Juventus legend Claudio Gentile.
“If anybody was wrongly named, it was him,” Birtles told FourFourTwo of Gentile. “He was one of the greatest defenders in the world but he had his methods. He was kicking and pinching and he certainly let me know in no uncertain terms that he was going to get the better of me.” Birtles was eventually withdrawn for Ipswich battering ram Paul Mariner.
By that time, England had hit the bar through Kennedy but Italy were in the ascendancy. Fiorentina playmaker Giancarlo Antognoni was starting to run the game, and in the 79th minute he fed Gentile, who found Francesco Graziani on the left. The Torino forward tore past Phil Neal’s bumbling tackle and centred for Marco Tardelli, who drove home from close range.
Keegan’s last-minute overhead kick almost surprised Dino Zoff but Kenny Sansom couldn’t quite snaffle the rebound and Greenwood’s men were done for. Even the chance of a third-placed play-off went out of the window after England’s 2-1 win over Spain was negated by Italy’s goalless draw with Belgium, who proceeded to lose to West Germany in the final.
Greenwood was pilloried but led England to the 1982 World Cup, where they were undefeated but eliminated at the second group stage by West Germany; Jupp Derwall’s side were beaten in the final by Italy, with Tardelli’s screaming goal celebration becoming iconic. It seems you should never rule out the Italians.