Italian triumph rekindles love affair
Over the last few days, while Italy has been recovering from its collective FIFA World Cup hangover, an advert has been running on Italian TV with the slogan 'The World Cup is like meeting someone special: it happens once every four years'.
In fact, Germany 2006 was rather like the renewal of a friendship with an old flame which quite unexpectedly became a love affair all over again. For Italians everywhere, after 24 years the butterflies of an unforgettable Spanish summer returned.
On the eve of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the Nazionale unwittingly found itself the subject of worldwide attention for all the wrong reasons. Four of Italy's leading clubs were implicated in the calciopoli scandal, which was rocking the domestic game to its core. Captain Fabio Cannavaro, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and even coach Marcello Lippi were brought in for questioning by the authorities in relation to the ever-widening investigation into corruption in the game.
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These events prompted the Azzurri squad to close ranks. Lippi, strengthened by his seasons of top-class experience with Juventus, had laid the foundations of a strong squad during his two years in charge, and the unfortunate off-field developments only served to strengthen the group further.
His Italy team was built on a superb goalkeeper and defence, complemented by a well-organised midfield and an attack which despite lacking one out-and-out star boasted six very good players. Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Filippo Inzaghi all scored once during the course of the campaign, with Luca Toni finding the net twice.
There were various turning points in the tournament, the most important of which, in Lippi's view, was finishing top of a difficult Group E , thanks to the win against the Czech Republic in Hamburg. The victory came late on in a game which began badly for Italy.
Pavel Nedved caused them all sorts of problems early on and Buffon was called upon to perform miracles in goal before Alessandro Nesta was forced off injured (he would play no further part in the tournament). But his replacement Marco Materazzi proved to be the difference, scoring the opening goal which paved the way for an all-important win.
Having earned four points from their first two group matches against Ghana in Hannover and the USA in Kaiserslautern, the Italians now progressed to the knockout phase aware that reaching the Final was not beyond them. The slow-starting French had finished second behind Switzerland in their section, leaving an undaunting-looking path to the latter stages.
The Round of 16 match against Australia at Kaiserslautern was a dramatic affair decided by a last-gasp penalty won by Fabio Grosso. Totti provided the cool finish in the 93rd minute of a game that had seen Italy reduced to ten men 40 minutes earlier. Fortunately for the Azzurri, the quarter-final against Ukraine in Hamburg was a much more comfortable ride, ending 3-0 to Lippi's men.
The stage was thus set for the semi-final against Germany in Dortmund, and what would turn out to be one of the most memorable matches in recent FIFA World Cup history. Italy played well in the first half, but the Germans got back into the game after the break. The tie moved into extra time with both sides moving like heavyweight boxers no longer able to think clearly enough to keep their guard up.
Whoever could land the first punch would win, and Grosso was the one to deliver the knockout blow. The dashing wing-back found space inside the area and after Andrea Pirlo had cleverly played him in, he curled the ball home. Del Piero then ended the contest by finishing off a superb counterattack.
France had been avoided at the quarter-final stage but had to be faced in the Final. Zinedine Zidane scored almost straight away from the penalty spot but Italy dominated the first half and deservedly equalised through Materazzi. The second half and then extra time were a real test of Italian resolve but Gennaro Gattuso worked relentlessly to keep his side in the game.
Their attack was showing little sign of life, so it was up to the defence to resist the impressive French and hold out for penalties. And so it was that everything came down to those very spot-kicks that had shattered Italian dreams so many times in the past.
For once, each of Italy's penalties was perfectly dispatched. Even Daniele De Rossi, returning to the side after a four-match suspension, made no mistake. Pirlo and Materazzi both scored, while Del Piero kept his nerve for the fourth. Then it was Grosso's turn and somehow you could just tell he was going to score. It is always easy to say in hindsight but by now it was obvious that, after all this time, it was time for Italy to embrace football again. It was clear, as Cannavaro lifted that famous Trophy flanked by his team-mates, that Italy's love affair with football had been rekindled.
After the celebrations at the Circus Maximus in Rome, Lippi decided to hand over his legacy and the Italian Football Federation chose Roberto Donadoni as his successor. A former Azzurri midfielder himself and veteran of the 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cups, Donadoni has a hard act to live up to.