Italy eventually got the opening victory they craved against Iran, but few would have bet on an Azzurri victory at the start of the second period, when the hosts found themselves two goals behind. Faced with the prospect of a defeat that would have seriously undermined their world title prospects, Massimiliano Esposito’s men belatedly sparked into life, finding their rhythm and gradually stamping their authority on the game.
Even so they needed a helping hand from the coach, who looked to the subs’ bench to provide the energy and battling spirit needed to turn the match around. Thankfully for the home side and their expectant fans, the strength of their squad saw them through.
First Matteo Marrucci and Gabriele Gori scored after coming off the bench to cancel out the deficit, only for the Iranians to edge back in front before Francesco Corosiniti equalised for the boys in blue. The hosts then went ahead twice, first through Giuseppe Soria and then through Franco Palma, before a last-gasp leveller from Farid Boulokbashi took the game into a goalless extra period and then penalties, where the Italians held their nerve to emerge victorious.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com at the end of the match, Palma revealed the secrets behind Italy’s fightback, with the squad’s cohesion a key factor. "We are a close-knit group,” said the Italian wide-man. “We all feel in top form and on an equal footing, so it doesn’t matter who’s in the starting line-up because we know that every one of us is able to make his own contribution to helping the team win."
Indeed, he thought he had done enough to hand his side victory in normal time with his brilliant strike: "Yes, it’s a shame but I’m happy to have scored,” said the 30-year-old. “It was a crucial stage of the game and my first goal in a World Cup as well, an indescribable feeling. But it was a fantastic and intense day overall.”
One which he was glad to see end on a high despite a shaky start? “We were on edge because it was the opening match. Now I’m convinced that this vital victory will give us the energy and motivation to grow and go forward in the tournament."
Looking at the group standings, coach Esposito must be thankful for his squad’s depth, given that four of Italy’s six goals were netted by players who began on the bench. The reinforcements provided a much-needed boost for the starting five, who had been caught totally off-guard by their opponents’ onslaught.
"We didn’t know much about them," explained Palma. "They took us by surprise to start with, closing down well and seizing their chances. But once we went behind, we found the strength to recover.”
Further proof of the balance in the Italian squad was provided by their two goalkeepers Simone Del Mestre and Stefano Spada, who seamlessly switched places in goal throughout the match, right up to the penalty shoot-out when Spada finished off the job. "Luckily it went well,” added Palma, one of the five Azzurri penalty-takers who all found the net. “All credit to my team-mates who kept their cool from the spot."
Next up are Senegal, who themselves won another thrilling encounter on spot-kicks yesterday, surprisingly getting the better of Dubai 2009 runners-up Switzerland. "We know Senegal better than Iran,” added Palma, who was not in the Italy side that conceded a 6-5 extra-time loss to the west Africans at the 2007 finals. “It will be a really difficult match. They are physically strong, with an excellent goalscorer in [Pape] Koukpaki.”
The Italian admitted that his compatriots will need to come out of the blocks quicker against the Lions of Teranga and their dangerman, who bagged a stunning hat-trick against the Swiss yesterday afternoon. “We have to start better and not let ourselves be taken by surprise."
Although Palma is grateful to be a part of the Azzurri adventure, dreams of success are what really drive him: "It’s already fantastic to be part of this marvellous team but it’s not enough for me,” he concluded. “My team-mates and I want to go further in the World Cup. We just have to take it match by match but I’m convinced that we’ll improve, this victory has given us a massive lift."
Palma’s positivity and ambition will no doubt provide welcome reassurance to the many fans of La Nazionale, who are avidly following their heroes’ progress in Ravenna.