Italy were certainly not picked out as one of the pre-tournament favourites in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup. With some of the country’s biggest teams facing severe punishments for their part in the‘Calciopoli’ scandal, the Azzurri were in total turmoil and said to be set for an early exit.
News of the scandal seemed destined to have an adverse effect on Italy’s preparation and the mood within the camp, but manager Marcello Lippi thought differently. “I had a fantastic group of players,” the current China boss said in 2015. “In a way, the Calciopoli scandal helped the team to become even more united.”
Perennial slow starters at major tournaments, Italy managed to focus on matters on the pitch when they opened with an encouraging 2-0 win against a talented Ghana side, before being held 1-1 by a gutsy USA, who played almost the entire second half with nine men.
A routine 2-0 victory over 10-man Czech Republic ensured that Lippi’s men went into the last-16 as group winners, but they certainly rode their luck against a plucky Australia. The Socceroos spurned a host of decent chances after Marco Materazzi was sent off and they were made to pay when Fabio Grosso earned a stoppage time penalty, which Francesco Totti duly converted.
Italy brushed Ukraine aside with ease in the quarter-final before a memorable extra-time win over hosts Germany to set up a final with France, led by the majestic, retiring Zinedine Zidane, whose seventh-minute penalty was swiftly cancelled out by a towering header from soon-to-be arch nemesis Marco Materazzi.
A surprisingly open final went to extra time, which France dominated until Zidane was infamously sent off for head butting Materazzi with 110 minutes on the clock.
Italy could not capitalise on their man advantage, however, leaving the game to be decided by a penalty shoot-out - football’s ultimate pressure cooker.
The ever-serene Andrea Pirlo, who prepared for the final by sleeping and playing video games, dispatched the opening spot-kick with ease. Sylvain Wiltord responded in kind. Materazzi, the centre of the world’s attention just moments before, then found the bottom-right corner before David Trezeguet’s rasping effort rebounded back off the bar.
Daniele De Rossi showed Trezeguet the error of his ways with an unstoppable spot-kick that hurtled to the roof of the net. Alessandro Del Piero then sent Fabian Barthez the wrong way with his effort, allowing Grossoto fire his country to their fourth World Cup.
The left-back made no mistake, rifling his penalty to the right as Barthez went left. Five perfect penalties could not prevent the damage Calciopoli was primed to cause, but the remarkable temperament in such pressurised circumstances shown by the Azzurri, in the shoot-out and indeed throughout the tournament, provided a timely, much-needed reminder of the quality that still ran through Italian football.
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