What’s the Goalden Word?

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STAFFETTA: (staf-fét-ta): [Feminine – Noun – Singular]

Staffetta is an Italian word denoting relay or relay race. The relay is a unique variant of competition where each team competes with a single athlete at a time and in sequence. The switchover between successive athletes is via the baton and the cumulative performance of the team depends on both athletes switching in a perfect way. In the world of calcio, this term has made an indelible mark. It is probably in Italy, that when two brilliant players of similar characteristics come along, then instead of playing together (as is done in most countries), they play alternately. This alternation in play is referred to as ‘staffetta’. Many Italian managers have tried this over the years and we will see some examples here.

The earliest possible staffetta was during the 1934 World Cup and it was a short-lived one. Felice Borel was one of the Juventus greats and his 157 goals place him sixth in the all time list for the club. He had debuted in 1933 scoring in his second match. In the 1934 World Cup, he was though up against national favourite Giuseppe Meazza. After Meazza played the first match, Borel was tried in the second encounter against Spain when he got injured. Meazza would play all the matches leading Azzurri to the World Cup, and Borel never played another international match.

Another staffetta involved two players equally famous – Valentino Mazzola and Giampiero Boniperti. Mazzola, the captain of the Il Grande Torino, was the more rounded talent and even though Boniperti scored more in the league for Juventus, his place in the Azzurri was blocked. They did play one match together, but more often it would be Mazzola starting and Boniperti coming on as a substitute. All that would tragically change when the whole Torino side, including Mazzola, was killed in the Superga air disaster in 1949.

The most (in)famous staffetta was in the 1970 World Cup when Gianni Rivera, “golden boy of Italian football” and a lifelong Milan boy was pitted against Alessandro ‘Sandro’  Mazzola, son of Valentino and a lifelong Inter player. It was testy in every way. Even though they managed to play together under Edmondo Fabbri (manager from ’62-’66), Italy did not shine in the international stage although both Milan and Inter won European crowns. The next manager, Ferruccio Valcareggi led Italy to victory in the ’68 European Championship and when he arrived at the ’70 World Cup, decided that Mazzola and Rivera cannot play together as it would be too risky. His solution was quite simple – play them each for a half. This was the true staffetta. The invisible baton of a relay race was passed as every half time, one of the legends from the city of Milan would replace the other. Somehow, this strategy took Italy to the ’70 finals but on the final day, Valcareggi abandoned the staffetta, keeping Mazzola on for the entire match and bringing on Rivera for the last eight minutes. Italy lost the final 4-1 to Brazil. Maybe if these two Milan and Inter legends had played together for the entire match, the result would have been different.


                                      Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera – Then and Now


Subsequently, there would be a few more instances of the staffetta – Paulo Pulici(Torino) and Roberto Bettega(Juventus) would provide another city rivalry coming into the national team. The 1982 World Cup winning manager, Enzo Bearzot didn’t play Franco Baresi that much while Juventus defender Gaetano Scirea was playing. Roberto Baggio – Alessandro del Piero (’98 World Cup) and del Piero – Francesco Totti (’02 World Cup) were probably some more examples. But the 1970 World Cup is still the one where the baton passed smoothly enough for a series of matches only to falter at the final hurdle.