LEE WYNNE on Italy’s Fabio Grosso, the unlikeliest of heroes at World Cup 2006
“When a team is attacked, it makes them perform miracles.” Paolo Rossi was speaking about España ’82, a tournament that saw Italy crowned champions despite arriving in Spain with the Italian game still tarnished from the Totenero match-fixing controversy.
The dark clouds circled again as the Calciopoli scandal broke. The stench of corruption threatened to derail the Azzurri before an Adidas Teamgeist had even been kicked, questions about the match-fixing scandal dominating news conferences in Germany ahead of their World Cup 2006 campaign.
Football’s biggest spectacle was on German soil for the first time since Franz Beckenbauer lifted the trophy at Munich’s Olympiastadion in 1974. As favourites, Germany were led by commanding midfielder Michael Ballack, who had signed for Chelsea on a free transfer prior to the tournament, and deadly marksman Miroslav Klose. Both were vastly experienced players who had lost in the final four years earlier, succumbing to the brilliance of a Ronaldo inspired Brazil.
The host nation’s path had been relatively straightforward with the exception of a quarter-final penalty shootout win against Argentina in an ill-tempered affair. Predictably, Klose was in the devastating form that would eventually win him the Golden Boot.
Notably slow starters in tournaments, Italy eased through the group stage with wins over Ghana and the Czech Republic, only dropping points against the USA in a 1-1 draw that saw Daniele De Rossi sent off for a vicious elbow on Brian McBride. Two clean sheets in victories over Australia and Ukraine put the Azzurri into the last four against Germany.
Marcelo Lippi received praise for adopting a system which allowed Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti to play together, with the former in a deep-lying role flanked by the aggression and desire of Gennaro Gattuso as the chief protector. However, it was two changes in the Azzurri defence that would have the most unlikely and significant impact on both the World Cup and Italian football history.
Losing the cultured Alessandro Nesta to injury was a body blow to Lippi. Alongside the colossus Fabio Cannavaro, the towering presence of Marco Materazzi came into the side and made his mark on the rest of the tournament.
Due to injury and poor form, Palermo’s Fabio Grosso stepped in at left-back. The relative unknown won the penalty that knocked out the Socceroos in the last 16 as a galvanised Italy gained momentum despite injuries, suspensions and a looming Calciopoli court case on the eve of the semi-final.
The Westfalenstadion bristled with energy as the teams emerged from the tunnel. An expectant German crowd heavily outnumbered the Italians and created a red-hot atmosphere as the game kicked off. The competition’s official motto, “A Time to Make Friends,” didn’t extend to the Azzurri as they were jeered with every touch in the early exchanges.
Marshalled by the exceptional Cannavaro, the Italian defence frustrated Germany. However, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men did muster the most notable attempt of the first-half when Bernd Schnieder shot over after finding a rare gap behind the Azzurri backline. Italy’s most promising chance fell to Simone Perotta who overran Totti’s clever pass, allowing Jens Lehmann to smother the ball.
The opening 90 minutes produced plenty of intensity despite ending goalless, but it was in extra time that the game truly exploded into life. Recognising that the game was no longer being played in midfield, Lippi made bold attacking substitutions which made the game end-to-end.
The two best chances for Die Nationalmannschaft fell to Lukas Podolski. The first, a free header steered wide from a David Odonkor cross; the second brought an athletic save from Gianluigi Buffon as he tipped over a powerful effort.
At the other end, Alberto Gilardino twisted and turned the German defence before hitting the upright and Gianluca Zambrotta smashed a right foot shot from the edge of the penalty box that beat Lehmann but hit the crossbar.
With one minute left and a penalty shootout looming, an Alessandro Del Piero corner was cleared to the edge of the box before falling to Pirlo. He delayed before playing a no-look pass that dissected two German defenders and rolled perfectly for Grosso to arrow a left-footed effort around Ballack and inside Lehmann’s far post.
As Germany pushed forward searching for an equaliser, the Azzurri broke away. Sensing the knockout blow, Gilardino received a ball from Totti before playing in Del Piero who dispatched the ball into the top corner and sent the Italians to the final.
Italy won their fourth World Cup with a shootout victory over Raymond Domenech’s France side after a 1-1 draw in Berlin. Materazzi equalised a Zinedine Zidane penalty before an off-the-ball incident involving the two saw the Frenchman sent off as he buried his head into the chest of the Italian, bringing an end to his international career in controversial fashion.
David Trezeguet missed the all-important spot kick for Les Bleus and it was left to Fabio Grosso to score the winning penalty and become the unlikeliest of World Cup heroes.