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Football Italia - Italy 2006 - The Decade's Most Iconic Side.

Updated: May 21, 2020

The noughties were largely a humbling time for Italian football. After the halcyon days of the 1990s and Channel 4’s ‘Gazzetta’- think James Richardson sipping an espresso, reading the pink broadsheets of La Gazzetta dello Sportoutside a café - the 2000s witnessed the transfer of footballing power from Serie A, to La Liga and the Premier League. Financial scandals after years of inflated purchases saw the demise of Lazio and Parma, Sunday afternoon favourites of Gazzetta diehards. Between 2000 and 2009, Italy contributed just 4 of 20 Champions League finalists, and the goalless all Italian final of 2003 at Old Trafford, did little to reignite the spark of Italian football. Early in the decade, Serie A’s brightest lights, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, left to join Madrid’s Galacticos, while iconic Argentine striker, Gabriel Batistuta was nearing retirement, taking his hairbands and what was left of his knees with him.

For most football fans, the 2000s summon memories of iconic international tournaments and the rise of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to the top of the global game.

Long before the pair began swapping the Ballon D’or back and forth, there was Zidane’s French side winning Euro 2000. Brazil’s Ronaldo, complete with terrible haircut, lifting the World Cup in South Korea. Otto Rehhagel’s ultra-defensive Greece shocking Portugal to grind out a victory in Lisbon in 2004 and Xavi and Iniesta’s Spain, who tiki-taka’d their way to Euro 2008, pre-empting their World Cup win in South Africa two years later. Other than the brief re-emergence of a Kaka inspired AC Milan, Italian football had few reasons to be cheerful. Yet even during a decade on the periphery, the land of leather shoes, fast cars, high fashion and Roberto Baggio, arguably wrote the greatest footballing story of the noughties, giving us the decades most iconic side in the process. Italy’s 2006 World Cup win was one of redemption, during the Calciopoli match fixing scandal, laden with all the ingredients of your favourite sports movies – adversity, individual brilliance, controversy, passion and adding some distinctively Italian flavour - a world class defence.

Fabio Cannavaro lifting the FIFA World Cup after Italy defeated France in the final of 2006.

Calciopoli exploded in May 2006, with allegations of certain clubs influencing referee selection, eventually leading to the stripping of titles and relegation of Juventus, while implicating AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, those second favourite clubs of global fans throughout the 90s. As the World Cup neared, questions were raised about the inclusion of players from these clubs in the Italian squad, including captain Fabio Cannavaro – whose home was searched by police- and goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon. Some fans of the Azzurridemanded they be left at home.

Mercator cigar puffing Marcello Lippi was tasked with galvanising the 23-man squad and delivering a successful tournament, after disastrous campaigns at the 2002 World Cup and 2004 European Championship. Greats such as Franceso Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta and Cannavaro, could have reasonably assumed it would be their last time on the biggest stage in world sport. Even with the scandal brewing and investigations ongoing, the nation’s expectations were high. Italy went into the tournament quietly confident, after wins against Holland and Germany earlier in the year. Hosts Germany, holders Brazil, along with France and Argentina were among the teams to beat, while England were also mentioned as candidates, usually in conversations involving Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal, as Sven-Goran Eriksson aimed to finally delivery success with the so called ‘Golden Generation.’

Italy were drawn in the potentially tricky Group E, alongside Ghana, United States and Czech Republic, knowing that winning the group would likely see them avoid Brazil in the last 16. The Azzurri kicked off against Ghana in Hanover, with Buffon in goal, Nesta and Cannavaro making up a formidable centre half pairing, Andrea Pirlo orchestrating central midfield while looking like he was recording a shampoo commercial, flanked by the tireless Perotta and De Rossi, with Franceso Totti the linkman to strikers Gilardino and Luca Toni, who had finished the season with 33 goals for Fiorentina. A goal in each half saw off the Black Stars, with man of the match Pirlo on the scoresheet – a fitting start to the tournament for one of the decade’s most underrated players. The same side lined up against the United States, only to be upended by Daniele De Rossi attempting to give Brian McBride a rhinoplasty using his elbow with just 28 minutes played, earning a red card that would see the pivotal midfielder suspended for 4 games. The game finished 1-1, setting up a must-win final group tie against a Czech Republic side boasting Petr Cech, Pavel Nedved, a miraculously fit Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros. An early injury to Alessandro Nesta, would have huge implications later in the tournament. Nobody could have known when 32-year-old Marco Materazzi came on in his place, how crucial Nesta’s unreliable groin would prove to be. Then at Inter Milan, Materazzi was largely known as a defender with a penchant for scoring goals and collecting red cards. Less than ten minutes later, Materazzi duly opened the scoring with a header from a Totti corner. Topping the group was ensured by a late breakaway goal from serial poacher Pippo Inzaghi, rolling into an empty net and celebrating as if a 30-yard bicycle kick had gone in off the underside of the crossbar.

Italian defender Marco Matterazi played a key role in guiding Italy to their first FIFA World Cup win since 1982.

The win earned the desired reward, as Brazil predictably won Group F, leaving Italy to face Australia in the last 16, with a potential quarter final against the winners of Switzerland vs Ukraine. The last 16 clash offered more controversy. Materazzi, having delivered a goal in the last tie, delivered a red card in this one, for a lunge that probably only warranted a yellow. Australia proved stubborn and fashioned half chances while Lippi attempted to not melt down on the side-line, until in the 95thminute Fabio Grosso earned a penalty, tumbling over Lucas Neill who had gone to ground prematurely. The pressure kick was left to Franceso Totti, a villain of the 2002 campaign after seeing red in the shock loss to South Korea, who blasted Italy into the quarter final with the last kick of the game. Totti’s big moment was one of several individual moments of redemption that would mark Italy’s campaign.

Away from the pitch, scandal was relentless. The day after the win over Australian, former Italian international and ex-teammate of Cannavaro and others, Gianluca Pessotto, fell from a fourth story window at Juventus headquarters, clutching a rosary in an alleged suicide attempt, as Calciopoli grew in intensity. Players were facing questions about the investigation back home rather than their progress in the tournament and the uncertainty of many club careers was brought into stark reality in the wake of Pessotto’s tragedy. (Pessotto made a full recovery and went on to manage to Juventus youth team) Cannavaro and full back Zambrotta flew to their old teammates bedside, returning to help brush aside Shevchenko’s Ukraine, with Zambrotta on the scoresheet and Luca Toni scoring twice, to the delight of the thousands of punters that had chanced a tenner on him for top scorer. (That honour went to Miroslav Klose) The conversation around Italian football was no longer being dominated by Calciopoli, as the Azzurri were just one game from the final.

The semi-final proved to be one the great World Cup knockout ties. 60,000 expectant Germans packed into Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, ready to see the host nation make it to the final, yet again.

Two historical powerhouses went toe to toe with starting line ups that included Lahm, Ballack, Klose, Buffon, Pirlo and Totti. A deafening rendition of Deutschlandlieddid little to phase Italy, led by a visibly pumped up Cannavaro, with BBC correspondent Mandeep Sanghera commenting after the anthems if the manner of the Italy team is anything to go by, they seem to be savouring the occasion and relishing the match rather than showing any signs of nervousness."

The game represented the zenith of Lippi’s career and coaching philosophy. Team above self, players playing for one another like brothers, tactics meticulously prepared but fluid enough to change systems as the game went on and the ability to tap deep into his sides mental reserves, to squeeze effort from exhausted limbs and kindle a refusal to consider losing as the heat of battle burned on, as it did that night in Dortmund. All the way to extra time as two great sides sought the critical goal, Italy hitting the woodwork twice, in an exhilarating, end to end goalless draw. Lippi demonstrated his brilliance with his substitutions, defying any conservative Italian instinct in bringing on attackers Vincenzo Iaquinta and Del Piero for Camoranesi and Perrotta. With 119 minutes played and a penalty shootout in front of the home crowd looming, an Italian corner was cleared to the edge of the box and found Pirlo, who might have sent in another cross or unleashed a shot at goal, but did neither. The coolest head in the stadium, disguised a reverse ball to Grosso, who whipped an unstoppable shot around Lehmann and ran off in an operatic celebration worthy of Marco Tardelli’s 1982 World Cup final explosion of raw emotion. With Grosso’s roars still echoing around the stadium, Cannavaro broke from defence to cap off the performance that sent him on his way to Ballon D’or glory, winning to ball and releasing Gilardino and Del Piero to combine, with Del Piero, still haunted by his costly misses in the 2000 final against France, bent a shot around Lehmann, into the top corner. Italy were off to Berlin, to face France again, led by Zinedine Zidane, in his final ever game.

Fabio Grosso celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Germany in the FIFA World Cup Semi Final in 2006.

On the morning of July 9th 2006, Alessandro Nesta failed a fitness test, ensuring Materazzi kept his place in the team for the World Cup final. Had Nesta never been injured, would Materazzi ever have leapt to equalise after Zidane had chipped an early penalty in off the crossbar? Would he have been on the pitch in extra time, offering Zidane whatever choice words prompted the France legend to end his glittering career with a red card for a moment of sternum smashing madness by way of ferocious headbutt into the Italian’s chest. As Zidane unravelled his wrist support and walked past the World Cup trophy, down the tunnel to retirement, France held on for penalties. Pirlo went first, stroking in as if it were a game of 5-a-side. Materazzi then, the newly titled most hated man in France, converted the second. De Rossi, elbow still bearing the imprint of Brian McBride’s face, converted the third. Legendary Del Piero scored the fourth, and since former Juventus man David Trezeguet, who had broken Italian hearts in the Euro 2000 final, had rattled the crossbar with France’s second kick, the previously little-known Grosso, stepped up. One kick to win the World Cup, for a nation who had never won a World Cup shootout, suffering heartbreak from the spot in 1990, 94 and 98.

The unity Italy had shown in the midst of Calciopoli, the fearlessness of Totti scoring his 95thminute penalty in the last 16, the fortitude in only conceding two goals in the tournament (one penalty and one own goal), the courage shown by Lippi with his semi-final substitutes, the passion of the redeemed Del Piero celebrating his late semi-final goal, and the will of 60 million Italians watching through their hands, all combined in that moment - manifested in the relatively inexperienced Grosso’s left boot as he ran up, immortality at stake, and smashed the penalty into the top corner, delivering Italian football from the shame of scandal to the summit of the football mountaintop.

Four years later, Italy finished bottom of their group in South Africa, with just 9 of the 2006 squad still present. Spain were world champions while their clubs, led by Messi and Ronaldo would dominate the decade. Lovers of Calcio would only have the side of 2006 to draw upon, when dreaming of the re-emergence of Serie A, and the reappearance of James Richardson on our screens, sipping espressos in the sun, delivering puns while translating the headlines of those pink newspapers. And what a side it was. Buffon. Nesta. Cannavaro. Grosso. Totti. Pirlo. Del Piero. The very best of the noughties.

Neil Tully

Football Writer

Well Done Michael, He’s 13

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