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.
The win would leave Italy atop of Group E with seven points, due to play Australia in the Round of 16 and one of Switzerland or Ukraine should the Azzurri bypass the Socceroos.
Despite all the chaos surrounding the side, could Italy push to the semi-finals? “This team has terrific spirit, probably the most fighting spirit I’ve had in any team,” Lippi remarked following the win. “We deserved to qualify. We played two great games to beat Ghana and Czech Republic, two very difficult teams. Finishing top of the group was very important for many reasons, but even if we had to play Brazil in the next round we’d have given it our best shot.”
It had proven a relatively comfortable passage through to the Round of 16, however nothing to suggest Italy were suddenly a favourite. In a way this is how the Azzurri liked it – staying under the radar and going about their business. Besides, expectation did nothing but cripple Italy four years prior.
Speaking of 2002, up next were Australia and Guus Hiddink. His South Korea sent Italy packing then and he was out to repeat the trick. Behind Hiddink was a hopeful nation. After 32 years of heartache, Australia were enjoying the party. But this was Italy. Lippi had assembled a squad determined to reach Berlin.
The game turned early in the second half when Materazzi was sent off. Then, as the clock ticked past 90 minutes, Totti found Fabio Grosso on the left. He closed in on the penalty area and Lucas Neill. The defender went to ground and Grosso fell over his prone body. The referee had no doubts - penalty. Up stepped Totti, burying his kick and the hopes of a nation. The Azzurri had survived a scare. “I was desperate for us to score in normal time because we were down to 10 men. I don’t know what would’ve happened if it had gone to extra time,” Grosso noted.
Just days before Ukraine in the last eight, news from Italy shook the Azzurri camp. Crushed under the weight of the catastrophe around him, former Azzurri defender Gianluca Pessotto went to the edge of his Juventus headquarters window, clutched a rosary and said goodbye. He fell 15 meters, but not to his death. Pessotto suffered multiple fractures, but would eventually make a full recovery. Juve players Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Del Piero were amongst those to make a hasty return to Turin, before continuing the German adventure.
The quarter-final itself was fairly comfortable. Zambrotta scored early and despite a fleeting second half period the Eastern Europeans rarely threatened. Luca Toni broke his Cup duck, grabbing a quick-fire double as it finished 3-0. “I dedicate these two goals to all those who kept faith in me even when things didn’t seem to be going too well.” Lippi added: “The whole squad dedicates the victory to Gianluca Pessotto.”
The road to Berlin was blocked by a confident Germany. They met in Dortmund, a friendly home for Die Mannschaft - they were unbeaten there in seven decades. But Italy had enjoyed memorable wins over host nations. They eliminated France in 1938, put four past Mexico in the last eight in 1970 and were the only team to beat Argentina eight years later.
Torsten Frings was suspended following the post-match fracas against Argentina. According to the host nation, it was Italy who forced the issue and supplied footage to FIFA indicting the midfielder.
A pulsating 90 minutes ended scoreless. In extra-time Italy surged forward. With penalties a possibility they were wary of respective shootout records. Italy had lost all three at a World Cup. Germany had only ever missed one penalty. Alberto Gilardino’s near-post shot beat Jens Lehmann, but not the woodwork. Less than 120 seconds later, Zambrotta cracked the crossbar.
Still no goal. Then, Del Piero’s 119th minute corner fell to Pirlo on the edge of the area. His poise set up Grosso, whose goal and Marco Tardelli-like celebration became iconic. “I wasn't aware of anything when I shot,” Grosso claimed. “I was surprised to find myself in their area, but I hit the ball at the only corner of the goal where it had a chance of going in. I have to thank Andrea for his fantastic pass, only he could have seen that I was in enough space for a shot.”
Just one minute left and Italy led. On the counter Gilardino found a surging Del Piero, who curled into the top corner. “We’re going to Berlin!” Sky Italia commentators Fabio Caressa and Giuseppe Bergomi exclaimed.
France stood between Italy and triumph. “When I think of France it brings back terrible nightmares of the penalty shootout in France 98 and the Euro 2000 Final,” Cannavaro said in anticipation of this latest meeting. “We’re going to have to sweat, scrap and suffer, but cannot even contemplate defeat.”
July 9, 2006. Italy versus France at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. The first all-European decider since 1982. De Rossi was back from suspension, but all eyes were on the retiring Zinedine Zidane. He came to the fore early, as Florent Malouda’s tumble sent Zizou to the spot. His chipped penalty hit the underside of the bar and bounced in, the first goal Italy conceded since the USA draw. The Azzurri were not to be deterred and from Pirlo’s 19th minute corner, Materazzi climbed highest to equalise.
It was on to 30 extra minutes of gripping drama and one infamous moment. In the 109th minute Materazzi and Zidane exchanged words, the Frenchman responding with a head-butt to the chest. France’s inspirational captain was sent off, ending his career in disgrace.
But Italy had to face their demon from 12 yards. In 1994 penalties cost the Nazionale in the Pasadena sun. Twelve years on they were perfect. Pirlo and Materazzi got the ball rolling. David Trezeguet’s penalty bounced out off the crossbar, as De Rossi and Del Piero pushed the Azzurri closer to glory. Then Grosso converted the decisive penalty to seal Italy’s fourth World Cup.
They returned to Rome national treasures. In the weeks and months afterwards Italian flags adorned streets and balconies, while images of the triumph flashed across billboards and televisions screens.
Forgetting the troubles at home, Italy were able to do what many thought not possible. They proved an unshakable team unit, led by Lippi, which excited and attacked their way to victory. They shared the goals, with 12 different scorers. “That is a hallmark of all of my sides, I’ve always preferred not to overly depend on certain individuals,” Lippi said. Defensively, Italy were unflappable.
As others fell by the wayside Italy excelled. Each challenger that came their way was dealt with. Then in the Final, Italy held their nerve in the most gut-wrenching scenario to forever immortalise Lippi’s warriors.