10 days to kick-off - Preparation means nothing
Despite a vastly improved showing against England – thanks largely to Takeshi Okada’s decision to finally bring in a proper defensive midfielder and switch to 4-1-2-2-1 – two late own goals mean that Japan have now lost four of their last five World Cup warm-up matches. But then again, just how important is good preparation anyway? Football Japan takes a look at five national teams for which pre-tournament turmoil was no barrier to success.
1. Italy, World Cup winners 2006
We only have to look back four years to see how Italy’s bid for a first world title since 1982 (see below) was almost undermined and overshadowed by the biggest footballing scandal of the 21st century so far. In May 2006, Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi followed the rest of his club’s board, plus the president and vice-president of the FIGC (Italian Football Federation), in resigning following allegations that a number of top Serie A clubs had attempted to fix domestic matches by effectively choosing their own referees.
On 4 July – hours before an Italy squad containing 13 players from the four teams implicated would face hosts Germany in a World Cup semi-final – the prosecutor in the Calciopoli affair announced his recommendation that Juventus be relegated to Serie C1, with Milan, Lazio, and Fiorentina all sent down to the second tier. Unfazed, however, Marcello Lippi’s national side scored twice in the dying moments of extra time that evening, before going on to beat France on penalties and be crowned as champions of the world for the fourth time five days later. The clubs’ punishments were later reduced on appeal.
Having scored 60 goals in three seasons for Vicenza and starred during Italy’s unusually free-spirited run to fourth place in Argentina ’78, Paolo Rossi had the world at his feet when he joined Perugia in 1979, before losing it all when implication in the following year’s Totonero betting scandal saw the striker banned from all football for three years. Rossi protested his innocence, and though the suspension was eventually cut short in time for him to appear at España ’82, the long absence seemed to have cost him his spark as Italy only edged out Cameroon in the first group stage on goals scored.
But Enzo Bearzot kept his faith, and Rossi rewarded his manager in stunning fashion with a magnificent hat-trick against the Brazil of Sócrates and Zico in one of the World Cup’s all-time great matches; a feat he then followed with a brace against Poland in the last four and the opener against West Germany in the final. Italy won 3-1, and a vindicated Paolo Rossi ended 1982 as a world champion and the winner of the Ballon d’Or, World Soccer Player of the Year, and the World Cup’s Golden Shoe and Golden Ball awards.
3. Brazil, World Cup winners 2002
There may have been no scandal to label with Italian italics and Brazil may have stood out as the best team in Japan and Korea by some way, but it’s often forgotten that this century’s first world champions were in real disarray not long beforehand. Former Jubilo Iwata boss Luiz Felipe Scolari took over from future Vissel Kobe manager Emerson Leão in June 2001, with the Seleção outside the South American qualification places after 12 matches of a total 18.
Though Brazil did just about scrape through their worst ever qualifying campaign with nine points from the final six games, few gave Scolari’s side much chance of matching favourites France and Argentina; especially when captain Emerson dislocated his shoulder in training (while fooling around as a goalkeeper) and caused their entire tactical blueprint to be rewritten. No fear – the three Rs of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho scored 15 goals between them as Brazil’s famous yellow jersey earned its fifth star, while both France and Argentina fell at the first hurdle.
4. England, semi-finalists, Euro ’96
Sadly, there was no happy ending at Wembley, but even this most quintessentially English of glorious failures was an unlikely triumph given what had gone before. Having failed to qualify for USA ’94, England’s opening game as European Championship hosts against Switzerland in 1996 was their first competitive fixture in 31 months since a goal in the ninth second by Davide Gualtieri of San Marino had given us Graham Taylor’s last ever ‘do I not like that’. The friendly results under successor Terry Venables had been unspectacular too, with ten wins in 20 games capped by a farcical 1-0 ‘success’ over the Hong Kong Golden Select XI that was marred by tales of ‘dentist’s chair’ drinking binges and smashed up Cathay Pacific cabins.
England could only manage a 1-1 draw with the Swiss, but Alan Shearer’s opener broke a 12-game, 21-month goalscoring drought, and when Paul Gascoigne combined inspirational genius with self-parody to seal a 2-0 win over Scotland, football suddenly – for 11 glorious days – came home. Before those pesky Germans had to go and spoil everything, Shearer scored four more to finish as the tournament’s top scorer, the Dutch were demolished 4-1, and England won a penalty shootout for as yet the only time ever.
5. Denmark, European champions, 1992
Perhaps the most famous unlikely heroes of all, but while everyone knows about how an out-of-shape Denmark squad were only invited to replace war-torn Yugoslavia two weeks before the 1992 European Championship finals began, their story actually goes back much further than that. A genuinely great Danish Dynamite side had dazzled the world at the 1984 tournament and at Mexico ’86 with their explosive attacking and carefree style (not to mention a wonderfully kitsch World Cup song), but by the time Italia ’90 kicked off without them, inspirational coach Sepp Piontek had followed star names like Allan Simonsen, Søren Lerby, Morten and Jesper Olsen, Frank Arnesen, and Preben Elkjær Larsen out of the exit door.
Piontek’s successor, Richard Møller Nielsen, proved a hugely unpopular appointment at first, as the team’s best two outfield players – the Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian – quit amidst wide-scale revolt against his underwhelming tactics and results. The tragic circumstances in the Balkans provided a reprieve not only for Denmark, but for Møller Nielsen and the younger Laudrup as well, and while Peter Schmeichel and Henrik Larsen inspired a succession of unlikely wins over France, Holland, and Germany, there was even time to revive the spirit of the Eighties when the Danes flocked en masse to a Swedish McDonald’s just two days before their semi-final.
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