The Worst Five Losses in the History of Italian Football

As the world of calcio finds itself licking its wounds again in the wake of the second missed World Cup qualification in a row, we would be happy to console ourselves with the pretense that something like this never happened. Only, it wouldn’t be true.

Because yes, despite the four World Cup titles, the six Finals played, and the two European Championships won, Italy also have a history of painful and shocking setbacks against opponents way weaker that the powerful Azzurri.

Now, last Thursday’s defeat to North Macedonia could arguably make it to a list of the worst five losses suffered by the Azzurri in their more than centennial history. But, since the memory of it is still fresh (and painful!), we will leave it out of the count and take a look at the most shameful of Italy’s defeats aside from the Palermo disaster.

Unfortunately, there is still enough material to put together some good round-up. So, let’s get it going:

Northern Ireland – Italy 2-1 (1958 World Cup Qualifiers)

Italy’s original sin. The first time the Azzurri failed to qualify for a World Cup on the pitch.

All the Azzurri had to do to grab a ticket to Sweden 1958 was come on top of a mini-group that also included minnows Northern Ireland and a Portugal side with zero international prominence back then (Cristiano Ronaldo was not born yet and Eusebio was only 14 years old…).

Despite a few bumps along the way, Italy came to the decisive match in Belfast with the confidence that a goalless tie would have been enough to qualify.

Coached by former Juventus right-back Alfredo Foni, this was an Azzurri side stuffed with aged foreign players who had somehow gotten an Italian passport, including both the goal-scorers from the epic 1950 World Cup Final: Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia of Uruguay.

But Ghiggia got an early send-off and forced Italy to play with one man less for most of the game. The Northern Irish took a double lead, before Brazil-born Dino Da Costa, another oriundo, scored one for Italy’s honor. But that was not enough.

And so, while Sweden witnessed the rise to stardom of a 16-year-old Brazilian striker named Pelé, the Azzurri had to watch the World Cup from the sidelines for the first time.

Sweden – Italy 1-0 and 0-0 (2018 World Cup Qualifiers Playoff)

Perhaps the most painful setback to remember, if only because the memory is still vivid. Italy were trained by the internationally-unknown Gian Piero Ventura and, still as of today, many people keep simply wondering why.

The Azzurri seemed to be easily cruising through their World Cup Qualifier group on the way to Russia, but the first real test against Spain ended in a bloodbath. The Furia Roja won 3-0 and shattered Ventura’s band confidence.

Italy were relegated to a cruel playoff mechanism, a double-leg match-up that would promote to Russia only the winning side. Italy were paired with Sweden and their supporters rejoiced: “We are stronger than them!

It ended with Italy uncapable of producing a single shot on target across the whole 180 minutes, while a lone goal on their home turf in Solna was enough for Sweden to dispose of an Azzurri side whose powerlessness was disarming.

The 1958 disaster was a forgotten nightmare that many people had not even witnessed. Now, the pain was real.

South Korea – Italy 2-1 (2002 World Cup Round of 16)

Losing to the host country in a World Cup knockout stage is not necessarily a shame. Plus, the South Korean side seen at the 2002 world competition was not bad at all, even though they received quite a little help from their friends (i.e., the referees) during the tournament.

But when you are Italy and you face South Korea in a football game, you are obviously expected to ultimately come on top.

This is the most iconic match to symbolize Italy’s woes in the past few decades. No other game is remembered with the same acrimony and lividness in the Italian football fandom, because of how it was approached, of how it unfolded, and of how it was blatantly influenced by bad refereeing.

Italy traveled to Japan and South Korea – the first time a World Cup was co-hosted – with the reputation of a serious candidate to win the tournament. They had a set of strikers featuring Christian Vieri, Vincenzo Montella, Filippo Inzaghi, Francesco Totti, and Alessandro Del Piero (even a single one among them would have been more dangerous than the whole Azzurri trio on Thursday night).

Between the sticks, Gianluigi Buffon was in his prime and was protected by a back-line that boasted the likes of Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta. It was the best Italy roster seen in ages, far better than the one that would eventually triumph in 2006.

But the Azzurri struggled more than expected to make it past a group that included Ecuador, Croatia, and Mexico. In retrospect, that was a sinister warning sign as they prepared to face South Korea in the knockout stage.

Enter referee Byron Moreno of Ecuador.

The ineffable ref, a bizarre character whose antics would deserve an entire piece themselves, awarded a generous penalty to the home side after just 120 seconds for an alleged Christian Panucci foul on Seol Ki-hyeon. Buffon pulled off a miracle and pushed back the spot-kick conversion.

Christian Vieri took Italy ahead with a powerful header and the job seemed done. But, with more than 30 minutes to go, coach Giovanni Trapattoni served a golden assist to all those detractors who traditionally bill Italian football as overly defensive.

The Trap pulled out Del Piero to replace him with Gennaro Gattuso, basically deciding to defend a slim one-goal lead rather than looking for a second goal that would have put the Azzurri out of Moreno’s exploits’ reach.

The referee spared Kim Tae-young a red card that looked adamant. Then, after Seol equalized for the Asian Tigers taking the game to extra times, he incredibly waved a second yellow card at Totti who, in his view, had taken a dive in the box. Damiano Tommasi still found the back of the net for what would have been Italy’s winning golden goal, but Moreno and his crew came to the rescue and disallowed it on grounds of offside.

Spoiler alert: it was not offside.

When Perugia striker Ahn Jung-hwan jumped higher than everybody to head the ball home and pull off the upset of the day, the Azzurri didn’t even have the strength left to protest or to despair. Everything was just too absurd.

And so, as the Asians continued their surprising World Cup run, Italy packed their bags and went home, sulking at what became universally known as the Azzurri’s “Second Korea” (keep reading to learn about the first).

Italy – Zambia 0-4 (1988 Olympic Tournament Group Stage)

This was the most unexpected of all as it literally came out of nowhere. Like the previous one, this game took place in South Korea, though not against South Korea.

The stage was the Seoul 1988 Olympic Tournament, which was not exactly the most competitive and prized football competition of all. However, due to the tournament rules back then, there was still room for many world class players to compete.

Italy participated with their Nazionale Olimpica, a selection whose players only had to meet the requirement of not having ever featured in a World Cup. This allowed manager Francesco Rocca to count on names like Juventus long-time goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi, Serie A incumbent capocannoniere Pietro Paolo Virdis, as well as future Azzurri stalwarts Ciro Ferrara and Mauro Tassotti.

Italy were seeded with Guatemala, Zambia, and Iraq. The group looked like a piece of cake, especially after a 5-2 thrashing of Guatemala in the tournament opener.

But then the time came to face the unknown Zambians.

Back in the 1980s, African teams in international tournaments were still considered a folkloristic presence and nothing more. Italy were probably the first to learn the hard way that the times they were a-changin’.

It was a very hot and humid day in Gwangju and, even though Zambia were surely more used than Italy to play in such conditions, that is not enough to explain how the Azzurri literally melted down and were hit one-two-three-four times by the orange-dressed Chipolopolo.

Striker Kalusha Bwayla, who scored three times and propitiated Massimo Pellegrini’s own goal, became an absolute nightmare for Italy. The Azzurri had not suffered such a heavy beating in a long time and, even though they somehow bounced back to grab a decent 4th place in the tournament, the shame of such a loss to Zambia continued to haunt the Italian fans’ nights for long.

Sadly, the parable of the Zambian golden generation had a tragic ending. In 1993, the entire Zambia roster perished in a plane crash on their way to a World Cup Qualifier game. Among those who lost their lives, there were five starters from that epic win against Italy.

Italy – North Korea 0-1 (1966 World Cup Group Stage)

The mother of all Italy’s humiliating defeats and arguably the worst. Although the Azzurri‘s performances that could put such title in question have dramatically increased in the past few years, nothing still comes close to the incredible setback they suffered at the hands of North Korea in the 1966 World Cup.

That was the only football game whose impact was so powerful to enrich the Italian vocabulary with a neologism. Since 1966, “Having a Korea” in Italian has come to mean suffering a shocking, unexpected, humiliating loss.

Italy were coming from a string of disappointing performances at the World Cup. They had not made it past the group stage since 1938. This seemed the right time, though. Italy needed just one point against the North Koreans to finally make it to the knockout stage.

Now, if North Korea looks like a country shrouded in mystery nowadays, things were not any different 56 years ago. The only known thing about the Asians was that they were pretty much an amateurish team. The Azzurri staff was so confident and dismissive ahead of the game that coach Edmondo Fabbri was rumored to have infamously billed the North Koreans as a “joke”.

While such comment is most likely apocryphal, one thing is for sure: North Korea were not joking and did hold their own on the pitch from the get-go. But it was coach Fabbri’s tactical choices to prove fatal for the Azzurri as the gaffer insisted to lineup midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli who was not in his best shape.

As a result, Bulgarelli picked up an injury on 36 minutes and Italy were forced to play with ten men as substitutions were not allowed back in the days. Six minutes later, Pak Doo-ik beat Ricky Albertosi and sent a whole country in despair. Italy’s second half assault was fruitless. The disaster was complete.

Italy gloomily left the English competition and were welcomed home by a horde of angry supporters throwing tomatoes and rotten eggs at them. Stories and legends were created and passed on to amplify the size and shamefulness of Italy’s defeat, including the one claiming that the match-winner Pak Doo-ik was an amateur who worked as a dentist for a living – while he actually was a gymnastics teacher who endured a strict training regime, like all his teammates.

It was not Italy’s first loss, and it would not be the last. But, since that day in Middlesbrough, things would never be the same for the Azzurri and for the whole of Italy.