Group B. England and Belgium met in the first match. The opponents took seriously each other. England was expected to win. It was interesting to see the new England, playing finally modern football, as British media, Greenwood, and his players repeated constantly. The first minutes were not surprising: England attacked, Belgium entrenched itself in defense. Soon it was crystal clear that there was no ‘new England’, but painfully old one – fast bypassing of midfield, long balls from defense to the strikers, high crosses in front of the net. No libero in defense, but the outdated line formation. The ‘Red Devils’ were not only familiar with the primitive English tactic, but had a very effective way to deal with it – and old tactic too, for Belgium was known for inventing it in the 1960s: the off-side trap. England fell victim of it 17 times this day. It was testimony of English tactical poverty and lack of imagination… every time the ball was crossed from the wings, Walter Meeuws gave the signal to his mates, they moved ahead in synchronicity and the English striker was offside. No English player seemingly even thought to try something different, since long passes and crosses benefited the opposition. In the same time Belgium was dangerous in counter-attack. The veteran van Moer was excellent conductor. The ‘Red Devils’ knew what to do very well: close, almost personal covering of Keegan, Wilkins, and Brooking, so they had no room to move and no time to think; and constantly on alert for an opportunity to counter-attack. Still England managed to open the result after Cools made a mistake – Wilkins intercepted a careless pass and scored. Happiness lasted exactly 4 minutes – after a corner kick Ceulemans equalized in the 30th minute. The goal immediately triggered the English… no, not the players, but the fans. They started a fight with Italian fans, supporting Belgium. One particularly enterprising Brit climbed up on scoreboard and tried to change the fate of his team by erasing the Belgian goal and the name of the scorer. And that was the the most memorable part of this match…
The Police interfered, casualties were brought down near he pitch, so to be transported to hospitals, and as a last resort the Police used tear gas. The fight was stopped, but clouds of tear gas covered the pitch. The referee had no choice but to stop the match in the 41st minute. Players needed medical help – the English keeper Ray Clemence had it worse than anybody else: he was completely blinded by the tear gas. When the match was continued, there was nothing new – England attacked as before, Belgians killed English attacks with the off-side trap. At the end, it was 1-1. One Italian fan died in hospital from knife wounds; one English fan had broken skull. Minor injuries and arrests didn’t count. This was the first sign of the arrival of the ugly 1980s – fans violence was nothing new and the British were well known for it, but so far the hooligans were club supporters thrashing a city after a game. Nothing like this happened before when the national team was playing and at the finals of major international tournament. Naturally, the fans continued to ‘express’ themselves after the match on the streets of Turin. UEFA fined the English Federation 13 000 Swiss Franks. Greenwood and Keegan condemned the hooligans. To a point, Greenwood sounded as if finding excuse for the stupid play of his team in the hooligans – ‘They destroyed our good match’ – but ultimately was disappointed from his players. Guy Thys solemnly shrugged his shouldrs: ‘We got a point, everything goes as planned. I was surprised to see how easily the English fell into the off-side trap.’
Italy – Spain followed. Both teams were cautious before the match, taking the opponent seriously. The focus – and the pressure – was on Italy. Bearzot feared that Milan fans may be hostile to the national team. Zoff promised attractive attacking football. Victory was a must. And victory of Italy was expected not only at home – memories of wonderful Italy at the 1978 World Cup made Italy a favourite instantly: it was the right time, the team matured. It did, but not in the expected way – rather, the fears of Italian media proved true. It was older squad – not as age, but ‘morally old’: same players, those from Juventus no longer hungry for success. Bettega was moved back to play more as midfielder – he was getting old. It was not that Italy played bad – it was just not as great as expected. Spain was difficult opponent to begin with and without much pressure on their heads, the Spaniards played surprisingly well. To many – even above themselves. Both teams had their chances, but goalkeepers excelled this day – Zoff and Arconada were outstanding.
Equal match, perhaps the Spaniards were a bit more vigorous. Saura reaches the ball first and goes away from Bettega, who looks… disappointed and late. At the end it was 0-0. Bearzot and Cuballa hugged each other in recognition of the good fight – the match was considered the best of the opening round – but friendly gestures did not mask disappointment in the Italian camp. The media was quick to observe that the Italian attack was a bit toothless and there was nothing to be done about it. Paolo Rossi was badly missed, but he was suspended because of the Tottonerro affair. After the first round all teams in the group were still in the same equal position – every one with a point. Now winning became really a must.
Belgium – Spain was played in front of less than 1200 in Turin. Before the match media gossiped about the relaxed camp of the Belgians sipping beer. The players talked about… Holland. As if they were to play against the neighbours. ‘We will teach them a lesson’, said Ceulemans, ‘They are arrogant and although they make money in our championship, they look down at us.’ The Spanish camp did not provide fodder for the press. The match started seemingly as a copy of England – Belgium: Spain attacked, Belgium answered with meticulous defense and the off-side trap worked just as well – 18 times. But gradually it became clear that Belgium is tactically rich. Lead by non-stopping van Moer, they conquered the midfield. The defenders added their skill and strength to attacking – particularly Gerets. Spain had no answer to that – gaps appeared between their lines, they lost the battle for midfield, and there was no one capable to direct their attacking efforts. Later Cuballa acknowledged that only Asensi was able to sustain the tempo and pressure of the Belgians and when he had to be substituted because of injury, the match was effectively lost.
Unstoppable Ceulemans – the ‘scandalous’ beer-drinking of the Red Devils was instantly forgotten during the match: they looked bigger, better, faster than Spain. In the 16th minute Gerets scored. Quini equalized in the 35th minute, but 2 minutes later Asensi left the field and from this moment Belgian victory was just a matter of time. Cools scored the second goal in the 65th minute and that was the end. Guy Thys even substituted van Moer after that – unlike Asensi, the absence of van Moer did not affect the game of Belgium. Belgium deservedly won, the players were praised – new stars were discovered among them, and the team considered the weakest in the group suddenly was a favourite. Guy Thys once again was low key – he said his team was perfect and pleased him very much, but thought that it will be at its peak after 2 years. As for Spain, they were brought down to earth – perhaps not the team, but the opinion of the media of it: it was the old, painful to watch Spain of the whole decade.
But this match was central – Italy vs England was the big focus of interest. It was more than the thrill of all-important match, which more or less was decisive – the loser was to be practically eliminated and the winner almost certainly was to play at the championship final. The fight started by the English fans in the match with Belgium, followed by despicable behaviour of the English after the game on the streets was bigger concern. The Mayor of Turin said that since the stadium is property of the city, he will close it altogether and there will be no match. The threat lead to emergency measures of security, increased Police presence, which had the right to conduct body searches and shut down sells of alcohol near the stadium. Yet, the atmosphere was poisonous – fighting on the streets continued, an English bus was put to fire, and Dennis Law was kicked out of a restaurant as soon as he said a word in English. Now it was the English complaining of bad treatment by Police, services refused, and general Italian provocations – it worked at home, but on the continent there was no sympathy for the rowdy English fans. The tensions affected the players too and the match started with both teams obviously nervous and making too many mistakes. The Italians even had to be cooled down with 2 yellow cards. Bearzot made one change – instead of Cabrini, Benetti was a starter. Greenwood fielded the same team which played against Belgium – only Shilton replaced Clemence. This was perhaps a mistake, but on the other hand – this was the best England had. Not that much in terms of players, but in terms of tactics and creativity – personal changes were unlikely to suddenly change the outdated English approach. Curiously, the yellow cards given to Benetti and Tardelli helped the Italian game – the players cooled down and concentrated more on playing and less on battling. England was hard to blame and equally hard to praise… they played as they ever played: fast, high-spirited, with their minds on attack. They were also predictable and increasingly boring. Italy started to look better creatively and more dangerous. In the second half Italy dominated the match and although both teams had their chances, the inevitable finally happened.
Tardelli was quicker than the English defenders after low cross from Graziani. In the 80th minute Italy got a lead – 1-0. And kept it to the final whistle. England, expected if not winning the championship, at least playing at the final was out. The administration of Turin was very happy – the brutal English fans were moving to Naples, if not going home right away. Greenwood suddenly lamented the absence of Trevor Francis, but apart from that he saw nothing wrong with his team. Tony Woodcock made a rather outlandish comment: in his opinion, England concentrated too much on playing instead on approaching the match as a battle. Well, ‘playing’ was the obvious deficiency of him and his teammates.
Spain and England had nothing to play for – the best either team could do would be to play for 3rd place. Already ‘the small final’ was not all that important. Besides, to reach it depended not only on winning the direct match: Italy vs Belgium had to end with a winner. A tie worked against England and Spain. Apparently, there were no hopes in both camps. The Spanish Federation was concerned with continuous international disappointments and the finger was pointed at the foreign players in Spanish clubs. Timing was not great… decision was reached in the day of the match against England: ‘the minimalist’ faction won – Spanish clubs were restricted to contracting only one foreigner, who had to be approved by the State Sports Committee. Since no Spanish club actually employed only one foreigner after the restrictive rule it has to be clarified: first, as ever before, the ‘oriundi’ were not affected. Second, the rule meant only new recruits – whoever already played in Spain did not count. The rule changed absolutely nothing, except enraging the big clubs. Not the best thing hours before the match against England started. For Kuballa this was the last match as a coach – neither he, nor his players, already thinking of the next coach, were highly motivated. The English camp was quiet – the motivational talk of Greenwood was rather lame: ‘If you don’t want to completely disappoint our fans, go and beat Spain.’ Apart from pride, neither team had anything to play for. Both coaches made changes, giving chance to those who did not play so far. More important were the English changes: Viv Anderson and Glen Hoddle were starters. They looked better than the players used in the previous matches… so, why Greenwood did not play them when it mattered? Greenwood also changed tactics – 4-4-2 was used this day and Keegan was moved firmly at the top of attack. In the earlier matches he was placed back – used a bit as playmaker. Changes or not, nothing really changed – the opponents played as they did before. England looked a bit better, Spain was tough and difficult. Brooking scored in the 19th minute for England. In the second half Dani equalized from a penalty. And a few minutes later Spain got a second penalty. Dani stepped in again and scored again. But the referee did not like his approach: Dani was slightly stopping just before kicking the ball, so the goalkeeper was already flying and Dani was able to shoot in the undefended corner. The referee warned Dani, but… he did it again. Except luck was not on his side anymore.
This was the high moment of the match – both as entertainment and outcome. The result remained 1-1 and Woodcock scored for England in the 61st minute. With this goal England won 2-1. Greenwood credited Lady Luck for everything: ‘We were unlucky against Italy, today were lucky against Spain.’ England depended still on luck – had to wait the outcome of the last group match and if lucky – to play for 3rd place.
Italy vs Belgium was to decide the finalist. Italian expectations were rather cautious: the media gave 60-40 chances to Italy. Belgium was blamed for defensive tactics – a point not missed by Guy Thys, who pointed out that he plans to do what Italians did for so many years. Who invented catenaccio after all? It was interesting reversal of roles – Italian media crying against defensive football and championing attack. Bearzot thought his team was able to beat Belgian offside trap. And he had to, for only victory would move Italy to the final – any other result benefited Belgium. Italy attacked allright, but the Red Devils were devious. Third match and third tactical approach: yes, they depended on defense and counterattacks, but there were variations. This one was the most pronounced defensive game played by Belgium: they new that offside trap would not work against Italy, so they moved back in mass, killed time, cleared the ball, and did not leave space for Italian strikers.
That was the match: Belgium deep in defense, making sure they outnumber the Italians near Pfaff. Who was excellent again. In the 53rd minute Italy was robbed from a penalty – or at least they thought they were. The ball deflected from Meews’ hand – deliberately to Italian eye; accidentally to the referee, who gave only a free kick. Italy was unable to outplay Belgium, had almost no scoring opportunity and the match ended 0-0. Zoff was outraged – ‘We are the only team not allowing a single goal in our net. It is an absurd we are not playing the final.’ Not so absurd… Italy scored only one goal in three matches. Belgium scored 2 – which was the breaker in case of equal points and same goal-difference. With all the talk of attacking football, not only Italy scored only once, but the strikers scored plain zero – the goal scored the midfielder Tardelli.
1. Belgium 1 2 0 2-1 4
2. Italy 1 2 0 1-0 4
3. England 1 1 1 3-3 3
4. Spain 0 1 2 2-4 1
Belgium was surprising finalist, but hardly by mere chance – overall, they were the most impressive team in Group B. The only team showing diverse tactics, to change its game depending on opponent and particular needs. Italy, shaken by the Tottonero scandal, was not as good as at the 1978 World Cup. The team did not add to its game, as it was expected in 1978 – rather, they were weaker, a step back from the enjoyable attacking football they played in Argentina. May be a bit unlucky, but with so great difficulties scoring, bad luck was hardly the reason. England entirely disappointed – it was the same impoverished tactic ‘run and kick’ as ever. Did not work for years too – European football changed massively in the 1970s and England clearly missed the boat. Spain – nothing new with them either. No wonder Spanish Federation was concerned, but perhaps the problem of Spanish football was not addressed correctly: the whole philosophy of Spanish football had to change radically. On every level.
At the end, the final standings in the group were fair, according to what they showed. Frankly, only Belgium was a team for the future. The rest… belonged to the past.