Italy vs. Brazil: The World Derby

Brazil's Neymar, left, and Italy's Mario Balotelli. (AP)

In Italy, the game is known as il Derby del Mondo – the World Derby.

Brazil vs. Italy is a match pitting soccer’s two greatest superpowers against each other — between them they’ve won nine World Cups (five for Brazil, four for Italy).

Thursday’s friendly in Geneva brings these two nations together again in a rivalry that dates back to 1938 when the Azzurri beat the Selecao in the semifinals of the World Cup in France.

In total, they’ve met 14 times at senior level (seven wins for Brazil, five for Italy), with the Brazilians getting the better of the Italians in two World Cup finals (1970 and 1994) and at the 2009 Confederations Cup group stage.

In fact, Italy hasn’t defeated Brazil in over 20 years, but oh what a game that was. Italy defeated Brazil 3-2 in Barcelona in the second group stage of the World Cup in a thrilling, classic encounter that many observers consider the best game in tournament history.

No less of an authority than legendary BBC play-by-play announcer John Motson, who called over 1,000 games during his career, said the Brazil-Italy affair was the greatest match he ever commented on.

Brazil and Italy tend to bring out the best in each other, and it was no different on this occasion in sunny Spain. The game had drama, fantastic goals, great saves and one hero: the indomitable Paolo Rossi who scored a memorable hat trick to lead the Italians to a thrilling victory over a Brazil side that critics hailed as even better than the 1970 World Cup winning team.

Both teams won their opening match of the group over Argentina, but Brazil, by virtue of a better goal difference, only needed a draw against Italy in order to move on to the semifinals.

Rossi scored twice in the opening 25 minutes to give the Italians a 2-1 lead, but Falcao responded for Brazil in the 68th minute to level the score. Italy was devastated – a tie would do them no good – but Rossi stepped forward and became a national hero when he completed his hat trick with 15 minutes left in regulation.

Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff flung himself across the goal-line to make a brilliant save off a header from Cerezo in the dying minutes of the game to preserve the victory.

Astonishingly, Italy was through to the semifinals and Brazil went home.

Chances are that Thursday’s friendly won’t even come close to matching the drama on that fateful day in Barcelona. But you never know when these teams face each other.

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