Luigi Di Biagio gestured at the referee, he was complaining that Edwin van de Saar was not on his line and was instead trying to play mind games. You could not blame him for being agitated by the situation; after all, he was showing incredible courage. Only two years before, his penalty miss against France had caused heartbreak, as Italy exited the World Cup on penalties. Now, in the semi-finals of Euro 2000, he had volunteered to take the Azzurri’s first penalty and quite frankly, he could have done without the goalkeeper’s antics. Still, it was only too soon before the referee blew the whistle and he began his run up.
At this time, perhaps only England hated penalty shoot-outs as much as Italy. The Azzurri had exited Italia 90 like this, as Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena will never forget. They had also failed in the World Cup Final in the USA, Franco Baresi’s miss being overshadowed by ‘that’ Roberto Baggio moment. Finally, in France they lost to the hosts with Demetrio Albertini and Di Biagio failing to convert. Now, on June 29, a warm evening in the Amsterdam Arena, they found themselves here again. Surely confidence was low?
Ironically, it was not. The feeling from those watching on was that the Dutch hearts were sinking fast, knowing what had happened in the previous 120 minutes of dramatic football. The fact that the Azzurri had even got to the penalty shootout was something of a miracle. They had been reduced to 10 men with only just half an hour played, thanks to two bookable offences Gianluca Zambrotta will not remember with any pride. Dino Zoff had to adjust, he had to go ‘old school’ on Holland.
The defensive tactics employed were admirable. Alessandro Nesta was imperious and Fabio Cannavaro alongside him helped the pair pull off one of the best defensive displays in any Euros to date. The Dutch had possession, the Italians let them have it, but their velvet passing was simply kicked away from dangerous areas by Italy’s hard leather boot. They were simply snuffing out the channels and Holland had nowhere to go, however with the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert in the side, the Dutch were always going to get chances.
So how on earth, when Di Biagio stepped up, could Italy have been confident? Well, that is because during the game they had weathered Bergkamp hitting the post, but then bizarrely they missed two spot kicks. First, Frank de Boer had his saved by Francesco Toldo and then Kluivert managed to hit the post with his. This was not just a battle of two philosophies; this was Italy’s Rourke’s Drift. Again and again the swarms of Orange attacked, every time they were repulsed.
Toldo wasn’t even supposed to be the Euro 2000 goalkeeper for Italy. He had to step in after Gianluigi Buffon’s injury, but ended up becoming their hero of the tournament.
There was no point in taking Frank Rijkaard’s men on in an open game; this for Zoff's side was a war of attrition. Ever since they went to 10 men, it became obvious to them that they had no option but to get this to a penalty shootout. Toldo was key in this, as he had already performed heroics, but he was in sublime form, even the goal posts felt like they were Azzurri as they saved him again from Bergkamp.
Italy were now playing in a 4-4-1 with Filippo Inzaghi upfront and Alessandro Del Piero taking up an odd position on the right wing. In truth, Italy were playing with an eight-man defence, but it was working and the Dutch were getting frustrated. Nesta was now producing the best international performance of his career and snuffing Kluivert out of the game, Italy were doing their job well.
They could even have won the game at the 90th minute, as the underrated Marco Delvecchio had come on for Inzaghi and just shot wide of the Dutch ‘keeper. Extra time played out in the same manner, only Holland had fewer chances and looked increasingly distraught. That is why when the whistle blew, Italy were confident. They were going to penalties against a side that had already failed twice from the spot during regular time.
The finish was confident and accurate, rifled into the top left. Van de Saar went the right way, but had no chance, Di Biagio punched the air as France ‘98 left his body like a spirit leaving for Heaven. There were no excuses this time. Frank de Boer was next, saved, twice in one match. Gianluca Pessotto, not your normal penalty taker, scores. Jaap Stam missed the target entirely and Italy were realising the curse was nearly vanquished.
Francesco Totti’s panenka was a sign of Italy’s confidence, preceded by his infamous quote ‘mo je faccio er cucchiaio’ (now watch me chip it), even if Kluivert atoned for his earlier miss just after. Now was the chance, Paolo Maldini stepped up. Missed. Maybe the curse wasn’t gone yet?
Paul Bosvelt walked up looking like a man who had already succumbed to his fate. Not even nervous, just wholly defeated. The steps forward were laboured, the shot tame, and even when Toldo saved it, he had a look that said ‘I knew that was going to happen.’
For Italy, elation, hysteria, emotion and optimism, the curse was broken. There is another article I am sure that delves into the Final, that eventually brought heartbreak for Italy, however, this shoot-out was necessary and important. Mentally, it built them, fast forward to 2006 in Berlin and remember Fabio Grosso’s emotional celebration? That started in Amsterdam.