Italy put troubles at home behind them to win the World Cup for the fourth time. Luca Cetta and Sam Lewis reflect on the triumphant German campaign.
As the Italian squad gathered in Florence for pre-tournament training in spring 2006, the focus was not exactly on the upcoming World Cup. Usually, whatever comes out during Cup preparations has a tendency to bounce off the media bubble surrounding the Azzurri and float off into the distance.
Transfer news, retirements and agent talk seem wonderfully immaterial every fourth summer. However, this particular story permeated the usually impenetrable World Cup focus and shook the Italian players to their core.
The media had dubbed it ‘Calciopoli’, an ironic nod to the Mani Pulite investigation in the 1990s. Prosecutors investigating football agency GEA World discovered – almost by accident – transcripts of recorded conversations had between Italian football officials and Juventus general managers Luciano Moggi and Antonio Giraudo.
As more news broke leading up to the tournament, the prosecution spread to include Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio. Just like in 1982, Italy was once again embroiled in chaos ahead of the world’s biggest tournament.
There were calls for Italy to be removed from the World Cup, while players were being sent to Naples, Rome and Milan to answer questions on the matter, including captain Fabio Cannavaro. Press conferences were abuzz with questions on the scandal. Most had forgotten there was a World Cup to be played.
Cannavaro was chastised by the Press following a comment where he told media that Luciano Moggi had ‘worked well’ for Juventus, and had to re-organise a new Press conference to ‘correct’ his earlier statements. It was pandemonium.
“Our sales rocketed by about 50,000 copies a day since this happened,” Gazzetta dello Sport writer Giancarlo Galavotti said at the time. “Even old women going to the market in the morning want to read about this. It is astonishing.”
Coach Marcello Lippi, already the centre of mutterings about favouritism to GEA-represented players, faced calls for his job before the tournament had even started. FIGC president Guido Rossi had to publicly back Lippi for the rumours to go away.
For the Azzurri, one would assume the players would have been relieved to play some football and that was further aided by Andrea Pirlo’s drive to open the scoring in their first group match against Ghana. Substitute Vincenzo Iaquinta doubled the Azzurri’s lead and Italy’s first game ended in victory.
“Seeing the stadium full of colour and so many fans singing ‘Italia’ was a fantastic feeling,” Lippi told the Press following the result, probably relieved the fans had remembered the tournament was even happening.
However, the next game against the USA would soon vanquish the brief optimism Italy had built from the win over Ghana. A bad tempered, chaotic match marred by three red cards and an own goal saw the Azzurri escape with a point.
An Alberto Gilardino opener, who nodded home Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick, was cancelled out by a Cristian Zaccardo own goal, slicing a clearance beyond a helpless Gianluigi Buffon.
The match then descended into farce. Daniele De Rossi was sent off, but minutes either side of half-time the US were reduced to nine men. Any neutral sympathy surrounding the Italian team in light of the scandal brewing back home probably disappeared with the flash of De Rossi’s elbow, who shocked viewers by driving it into the face of USA midfielder Brian McBride after 28 minutes.
“It could have broken his face,” USA Coach Bruce Arena raged after the match.
“I’m sorry for myself, my team and the fans,” said De Rossi of the elbow, which the BBC described as ‘sickening’.
“I didn't intend to harm him. I talked with him and now I’m hoping the punishment isn’t too harsh. I feel terrible about it. I explained what happened with McBride and he was very kind.”
The Roma midfielder would be suspended until the Final following a four-match ban handed down by FIFA, giving Lippi and the Azzurri another headache to deal with.
Italy headed to Hamburg and the AOL Arena for their final group game, needing a win to top the group ahead of Ghana, who were facing the USA. Italy were sluggish from the outset and rocked by a tragic injury after just 26 minutes – Alessandro Nesta hobbling off due to a groin problem. It would be the third consecutive time the Milan defender had missed part of an international tournament due to injury.
“Lots of tears and tensions followed [Nesta’s injury],” Italy teammate Pirlo later wrote in his autobiography. “He [Nesta] kept repeating the same phrase: I don’t feel part of this team. I’m always getting injured.”
However, luck would shine on the Azzurri as his replacement – Inter defender Marco Materazzi – would score seconds after his introduction, rising to power a Francesco Totti corner home from nine yards out.
The Czech Republic were rocked by the goal and displayed their psychological weakness when Jan Polak was dismissed, receiving his second yellow card in the stoppage time of the first half. “Playing with 10 men was just too difficult,” Czech boss Karel Bruckner told the Press later on.
Filippo Inzaghi, a 61st minute substitute, doubled Italy’s lead when he took advantage of the space left behind the Czech Republic defence to evade the offside trap, dribble the ball up the halfway line and round Petr Cech to score.