It had everything: extra time, five goals, four red cards and a seemingly endless stock of twists and turns. Hungary's 3-2 quarter-final victory over Italy in Suez was undoubtedly one of the most spellbinding matches at Egypt 2009, leaving spectators, players and coaches alike with memories that will stay with them forever.
The dramatic flow of events at the Mubarak Stadium kicked off with Hungary's rapid-fire penalty opener, which the ten-man Azzurrini cancelled out late on before quickly exchanged extra-time efforts were trumped by the winner with three minutes remaining. "We're terribly upset and disappointed," explained midfielder Mattia Mustacchio, Italy's two-goal hero against Spain in the previous round unable to conceal his dismay. "We put in a superb performance and fought right up until the end. Unfortunately, luck wasn't on our side."
"It's very hard," added his captain and the team's goalkeeper, Vincenzo Fiorillo. "I couldn't do anything about the Hungarian goals. We gave everything. Losing like that is really difficult to accept after we twice managed to equalise with fewer players on the pitch."
Despite the outcome, the 2008 UEFA European Under-19 Championship runners-up - who defeated Hungary 1-0 during the semi-finals of that tournament - can return home with their heads held high, having matched the performance of their predecessors four years ago. "My players have been very good ever since they arrived in Egypt," said coach Francesco Rocca. "We had to build a team on the hoof. After the match against Hungary, I gathered my players together and thanked them all. I understand their disappointment but I think they've had a fantastic experience here. This tournament will help them progress."
Rocca's charges nonetheless made a hesitant start to the tournament. They wasted little time in booking a Round of 16 berth courtesy of a 0-0 draw with Paraguay and a 2-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago, but their 4-2 loss to Egypt in their final group outing exposed their limitations. Succumbing to the hosts consigned the Azzurrini to third spot in their section and that meant a daunting tie with Spain, who came into the competition as one of the favourites and promptly racked up three consecutive wins while scoring 13 unanswered goals.
A fourth straight triumph for Spain seemed to be on the cards, yet that proved too harsh a judgement on Italy's resolve and the underdogs went on to end an absorbing match surprise 3-1 winners. "We realise we've beaten one of the best teams in the tournament," said Rocca at the time. "After pulling off a result like that, I'm convinced we can go all the way." As a last-eight meeting with Hungary then loomed into view, Mustacchio also hinted at the team's ambitions. "We play every match as if it were a final. That's our approach."
Their Egyptian adventure has therefore come to a premature end, but after putting their defeat into perspective overnight, the Italian players are already turning their attentions to the future. "I know that my players have learnt a lot during their stay in Egypt," said Rocca. "From now on, they can really hope to earn places with the U-21s and the Olympic team. Competition is tough at that level, but I think they have what it takes to succeed."
For the time being, of course, Italy must bid Egypt 'Arrivederci', having recorded two wins, a draw and two defeats, while both scoring and shipping nine goals. As they journey home enriched by the experience, the last word should naturally go to their coach: "Thank you Egypt for your welcome and thank you also to all the fantastic supporters who supported and encouraged us throughout the tournament."