By 90Min
April 22, 2018
In what has become a popular trend - especially in modern day football - there is an emphasis based upon the age of a player seeming to correlate with an apparent decline in their ability, with phrases such as 'wrong side of 30' a lazy assessment of what a footballer can offer a team. 

If footballing great Dino Zoff proved anything during the 1982 World Cup in Spain however, it's that age is just a number. 

Captaining Gli Azzurri in what would be his fourth and final World Cup during an illustrious 22-year career, his time with Italy would poignantly come to an end as the goalkeeper finally got his hands, or gloves, on football's greatest prize.

While you would usually describe a goalkeeper as extroverted, chaotic and even a little crazy, Zoff epitomised the antithesis of the perception of a typical shot-stopper. Stoic, humble and someone who 'learned to express himself using his silences and his eyes,' the demeanour he exhibited, alongside his natural ability, is the biggest reason as to why Zoff went on to have the career he had, even before the 1982 World Cup. 

Earning a plethora of awards, including six Serie A titles Juventus between 1972/73 and 1981/82, along with a pair of Coppa Italia titles and UEFA Cup success. As for the national side, he won Euro 1968 having only made his debut in the quarter final against Bulgaria, while finishing as runner-up to Johan Cruyff for the 1973 Ballon d'Or and his inclusion in the UEFA European Championship Team of the Tournament in 1968 and 1980 solidified his status as one of the greats.

With a career spanning as long as Zoff's did however, there would inevitably be some disappointing lows that contrasted with the dizzying highs. Finishing on the losing side in the 1972/73 and 1982/83 European Cup final for the Old Lady meant he never got to lift European club football's biggest prize, while the World Cup represented something of a poison chalice for Zoff prior to the 1982 edition. 

Having played second fiddle to Enrico Albertosi during 1970 in Mexico, 1974 in West Germany proved to be a dire tournament for the Italians, failing to get out of their opening group containing Poland, Argentina and Haiti. While 1978's tournament in Argentina showed a turnaround in form, losing the third place playoff to Brazil, time was running out for Zoff to add a World Cup to his trophy cabinet, with the veteran stopper hoping to lead Italy to success in Spain with his own blend of poise and perfectionism. 

Italy began 1982's competition in rather unspectacular fashion, as a hat-trick of draws against fellow Group 1 opponents Poland, Cameroon and Peru meant Enzo Bearzat's side qualified for the next stage of the World Cup. The following pairing in Group 3 with current World Cup holders Argentina and one of the pre-tournament favourites Brazil meant Zoff and co. had their work cut out if they were to reach the semi final stage. 

After securing a hard-fought 2-1 win against Argentina, it would mean their next game against a much-fancied Brazilian outfit would decide who would qualify for the semi final. What would follow is arguably one of the World Cup's greatest games, while Zoff would produce one of the tournament's most famous saves.

In what was a truly pulsating encounter, Italy would take the lead on three separate occasions thanks to a Paolo Rossi hat-trick, his third making the game 3-2 with only 16 minutes remaining. With seconds left, the Brazil would have one final opportunity to score an equaliser; a goal that would've sent them through at the expense of their European opponents.

Brazil defender Oscar powered a header towards the bottom left corner from a wide free kick that seemed destined to find the back of the net. Zoff however produced a vital save, synonymous with the talent and stature of the man. The 40-year-old sprang to his left to make as he said 'the most crucial save of my career,' managing to keep hold of the ball inches in front of the goal line to send Italy through to the semi finals having seen off the best South America had to offer. 

The emotion surrounding the Brazil game even engulfed the usually-composed Zoff, as manger Bearzot said

"He always held back both out of modesty and respect for his opponents. But at the end of the Brazil match, he came over to give me a kiss on the cheek, without saying a single word. For me, that fleeting moment was the most intense of the entire World Cup."

(You may also be interested in World Cup Countdown: 9 Weeks to Go - Remembering the Iconic 1982 Showdown Between Italy & Brazil)

Now leading Italy to within two games of glory, they were incomparable from the side that began their Spanish adventure. Seemingly buoyed after their success against Argentina and Brazil, Bearzot's side were quite rightly confident they could win the World Cup, especially with a 'keeper and leader like Zoff.

Their semi final would pit the Italians against the side that they began the competition against in the shape of Poland. This game however wouldn't be another drab encounter as Rossi's brace meant Zoff's Italy would reach their first final in 12 years, and a Santiago Bernabeu showdown against West Germany.

Already making history by being the oldest player to ever play in a World Cup final (a record that stands to this day), Zoff's only focus would be to win the final in what was the twilight of his career. Thankfully for Zoff, it would prove to be fourth-time lucky.

Racing into a 3-0 lead thanks to second half goals from Rossi, Marco Tardelli and Alessandro Altobelli, West Germany could only provide a late consolation with Paul Breitner's strike, meaning Italy would claim the World Cup for the first time in 44 years, while Zoff finally had his richly-deserved World Cup moment. 

It would prove to be a historic win for the man who has made the sixth-most appearances for Italy, becoming only the second goalkeeper at the time to lift the World Cup as a captain, while his record as the oldest World Cup winner ever is one that will arguably never be beaten. 

As records were set, more individual awards would soon follow for Zoff. Named as best goalkeeper during the 1982 World Cup, he also took his place in the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team after his maiden success in the competition. Zoff would be awarded a number of titles in the years that followed, with one of his greatest personal accolades coming in 2003 after being named Italy's Golden Player; Italy's greatest player over the past 50 years as voted for by the Italian Football Federation. 

With that, most players would arguably retire off the back of a World Cup success at 40, it would be a grand finale for one of football's most understated greats. That simply wasn't Zoff, as he stated: 

"I played until the age of 41 just because I believe that it's always possible to make improvements."

When Zoff finally did retire, it brought the curtain down on a career that every player craves, success and longevity. One of the greatest goalkeepers of his or any generation, Zoff is now used as the measuring stick for what is expected, especially for Italian 'keepers, not only by ability, but by attitude also.  

"Dino was Italy's most important player in 1982. He was the one who truly represented the team. He was an example to all of us, myself more than anyone," was how Rossi appropriately summarised the class act that was Zoff; an unassuming legend who finally had a World Cup between those safe pair of hands. 

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