Italian soccer’s rise from shame to triumph

Joe Scaringi
August 31, 2009

Soccer is known across the globe as “The Beautiful Game.” Twenty-two men position themselves on a grassy field and proceed to complete a stunning arsenal of manoeuvres in an attempt to keep the ball in their possession long enough to find that precise moment where it can be knocked into the opposition’s goal.

The world knows little beauty like this magical game. It is deep-rooted in countries worldwide, including of course, the southern European nation of Italy.

Italians from coast to coast indulge in Serie A, the uppermost echelon in the Italian soccer league system. Serie A is one of the most famous and prestigious competitions in the world, featuring the best teams that Italy has to offer.

In May of 2006, the prestige of Serie A was called into question when a match-fixing scandal – Calciopoli as it came to be known – leaked its way to the forefront and Italian soccer found itself permanently stained.

Five soccer clubs were accused of being part of the scandal: A.C. Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, Reggina and league champions Juventus. All teams were handed severe punishments which would ultimately be significantly reduced after numerous appeals. Regardless of how severe the punishments were, a black mark was put on Italian soccer and the country was in disarray.

“These types of scandals definitely put a blemish on the game of soccer, especially to casual sports fans who don’t really follow the game,” said Francesco Pizzolla, an Italian Lega Calcio (Football League) writer for The Offside.

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To make matters worse, the Italian national team was amidst preparations for the 2006 FIFA World Cup which was to commence June 9 in Germany. A tournament so highly regarded it is held only once every four years, 32 of the world’s best soccer clubs were gearing themselves up for the tournament of all tournaments.

For the Italian squad however, while they had a duty to fulfill in Germany, there were many distractions at home.

“The match-fixing scandal definitely affected the team during pre-World Cup preparations,” said Pizzolla. “Players that were employed by the teams involved in the scandal didn’t know what to expect for the following season and were worried about their futures.”

Playing in their first preliminary round contest on June 12 against Ghana, the Italian club did what they needed to do, earning themselves a 2-0 victory. The Italians would continue to march on in the group stage earning a 1-1 tie against the United States, followed by a 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic, which allowed them to avoid a meeting with powerhouse Brazil in the Round of 16.

Managing to finish first in their group proved to be an immense accomplishment considering all that was happening back home. Talk of the match-fixing scandal was taking over the media, with more and more information being relayed as the tournament wore on.

The Azzuri however, would not falter; they would simply press on.

Italy would face Australia in their first match of the knockout stage and would battle the “Socceroos” for 90 minutes of scoreless football. As the game clock approached the 90th minute, the match official signalled for three minutes of injury time to be played. Two minutes and forty seconds elapsed with nothing solved; extra time seemed imminent.

As the final seconds carelessly ticked away, something extraordinary happened – something that seemed to come straight from the soccer gods themselves, determined to give Italy its chance to prove to the world that no blemish on their sport could take away from their natural ability to win. With the clock approaching the 93rd minute, Italian defender Fabio Grosso carried the ball deep into the Australian end.

Dribbling inside the 18-yard box, Grosso made an attempt to go around Australian defender Lucas Neill which would have put him in prime scoring position. Neill made a desperate lunge at Grosso, and in his attempt caused the determined Italian to spill to the pitch. The official was in plain view and immediately signalled for a penalty shot. By now, the three minutes of injury time were long gone, meaning Francesco Totti would have the last kick of the game and a chance to send Italy to the quarter-finals. With a look in his eyes of sheer focus and determination, Totti made no mistake, burying the ball into the top left corner past Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer.

The incredulous victory was short-lived, as the following day Juventus team manager Gianluca Pessotto suffered a four-storey fall from team headquarters. It is believed that Pessotto was attempting suicide as he was ashamed that his club had not only been stripped of their last two championships, but relegated to Serie B for the first time in history – a sentence that seemed much harsher than those handed out to the four other teams involved in Calciopoli.

“It is fair that Juventus was the only team relegated to Serie B,” said Pizzolla. “It was proven that they had direct links to referees and were influencing their decisions. In Italy the punishment for match-fixing has always been relegation to the division below the one you started the season in. So relegation to Serie B was a just decision () Juventus were proven to have had direct links to referees by using foreign SIM cards and influenced their decision-making. The claims against the other teams involved could not be proven 100 per cent and what they did seemed a lot less (bad) than what Juventus was doing.”

Distraught over what was taking place at home, the Italian team were forced to dig deep in order to shut out the distractions as best they could and focus on the task at hand. This was, after all, the most important tournament of their lives, and with a quarter-final match set against the Ukraine, it was slowly beginning to appear that the little country of Italy had a legitimate shot at the World Cup title.

“The scandal was definitely used as motivation for the players to win the World Cup,” said Pizzolla. “Italy’s reputation was tarnished when Calciopoli came out and everyone saw Italy as cheaters. The national team was the representative of not only the nation of Italy but all of Italian Calcio (soccer), and to show the world that Italy were not just known for fixing matches but that Italy can play football too. (National team head coach) Marcello Lippi is a master motivator and he knew how to encourage the players and protect them from the harsh things going on in the media.”

The contest against the Ukraine proved to be Italy’s easiest match of the tournament thanks in large part to highly-touted forward Luca Toni, who finally found his spark, coming through with a two-goal outing in the Azzuri’s three-nil victory.

Next to come was the showdown of all showdowns. Two of Europe’s greatest soccer powers were to collide as the highly motivated Italians were to take on the host country, Germany, in a semi-final match at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. Germany had never before been beaten in Dortmund and had an entire country in their corner – an intimidating foe to say the least. Italy however, had reason to be optimistic with the knowledge that Germany had never before beaten them at a World Cup tournament.

Something would have to give.

“Without a doubt the best match of the 2006 World Cup was the Italy-Germany semifinal,” said Pizzolla.

Throughout this epic contest, the Italian side continually played the long ball deep into German territory, with the Azzuri midfielders persistently chasing the ball down in the offensive corners in a relentless effort to wear down the German defence.

“Germany has always been a physical team, and if you tire them out you have a better chance at defeating them,” said Pizzolla. “Especially since Italy had two fast players on the flanks, Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camoranesi – and then later Vincenzo Iaquinta – who were able to chase down those balls all game.”

While unrelenting in their attack, some might say Italy failed in their attempt to tire the Germans as the game went through 90 minutes of scoreless soccer, sending the match to extra time. While Italy’s offence failed to strike, the Germans were running into identical problems at the other end.

“Italy’s defence and (goalkeeper) Gianluigi Buffon were impeccable that day, thwarting every German advance. As the game went into extra-time, Italy knew that penalties would surely mean defeat, as the Germans were 100 per cent in shoot-out situations. So they attacked, they risked it all and went against Italian catenaccio (defensive) philosophy.”

Even with the Azzuri’s out-of-character offensive, penalty kicks seemed inevitable. With 118 minutes gone, the teams were mere minutes away from exactly that.

Instead of the much-dreaded penalty kicks however, the soccer gods once again made their presence known with what had to be the most remarkable finish of the tournament.

With 100 seconds left on the clock, Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo carried the ball along the top of the 18-yard box before making a remarkable pass that went through four Germans and landed at the feet of Grosso. Grosso would one-touch the ball to the far side of the goal, just out of the reach of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and curling just inside the far left post.

A stunning goal that left Germany with little time to counter, the Germans made a desperate push at the Italian net, knowing full well that it would be their final chance. Now into the precious few seconds of injury time, Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro would storm out of the Italian end like Julius Caesar leading the Roman Empire. Tap-dancing the ball atop the penalty area, Alberto Gilardino would make a breathtaking no-look pass to Alessandro Del Piero who chipped the ball past Lehmann for Italy’s second strike, putting the final nail in the German coffin.

The Azzuri took down the almighty Germans in their own backyard and were headed to the World Cup Final for the first time in 12 years. Their final opponent: France.

Playing at the beautiful Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the two European heavyweights met to determine the ultimate in soccer supremacy. Realistically, this contest was less entertaining than the semifinal, however this was the FIFA World Cup Final – one nation was soon to be weeping, while the other in uncontested bliss.

Seven minutes into the contest, French captain Zinedine Zidane was awarded a penalty shot and would barely squeak the ball under the crossbar, putting his side up 1-0. Twelve minutes later, Italian defender Marco Materazzi would score a beautiful header to equalize.

The two sides would not find the net for the remainder of the contest and extra time would again be needed. With penalty kicks looming, Zidane committed one of the most bizarre acts of the tournament head-butting Materazzi in the chest, earning himself a red card.

The French were then forced to go into penalty kicks without their captain, who earlier had already beaten Buffon with such a kick. The teams would exchange goals, but it was striker David Trezeguet who would falter for the French, as his penalty kick bounced off the crossbar and out of harm’s way.

Leading 4-3 with one shooter apiece remaining, Fabio Grosso had the game and the World Cup on the end of his foot. Grosso, already the difference-maker against both Australia and Germany, would make his final impression on the 2006 FIFA World Cup, burying the ball deep into the top right corner with French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez guessing in the opposite direction.

“It was beautiful to finally win a penalty shoot-out,” said Pizzolla. “I have witnessed all of Italy’s World Cup shoot-out heartbreaks and to finally win one was a gratifying feeling. I think even the players knew that this was a unique moment and how important the shoot-out was and they were determined to put every shot into the back of the net.”

For the first time in just under a quarter-century, Italy was crowned FIFA World Cup Champions.

“I think it was incredibly important that Italy won the World Cup, as they showed the world what Italian football was really about. Even in late July and mid-August people were still celebrating Italy’s win and there was a sense of euphoria in the air. The World Cup win definitely helped to relieve the pain of Calciopoli for a little bit.

“At the beginning (of the Calciopoli scandal) it did a lot of damage to Italy’s footballing reputation, but I think over time people have realized that a whole country’s footballing reputation shouldn’t be based on something that a few people did wrong.”

Indeed, the summer of 2006 will be forever remembered as a roller-coaster ride for the nation of Italy. They say that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and, in Italy’s case, with shame came triumph.

“I think what Italy had was a unity that other teams did not have. The team worked as a unit and all the players were united and in harmony. They had a never-say-die attitude and never once gave up in any of the seven World Cup games. A lot of the players said that it had almost felt as if they were playing with a club instead of the national team, as all the players were close-knit and had a great understanding on and off the pitch.”

Now, a little over three years after their incredible World Cup run, the Italian national team is amidst the qualification stage for the 2010 World Cup which will take place this coming June in South Africa. For both the Azzuri and Serie A, an uncertain future lies ahead.

“In terms of Serie A, I think this season will be the best post-Calciopoli season yet,” said Pizzolla. “Many teams are re-enforced and Inter Milan will be seriously challenged at the top of the table. I still consider Serie A to be the most difficult league in the world. It may not be the richest league or most beautiful league, but it certainly is the most difficult.

“For the national team, the jury is still out. The squad seems to lack ideas when they play, and if they don’t improve they may be in for a rude awakening come June.”

Whether the team finds a rude awakening in June remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that for exactly one month’s time, in the summer of 2006, the nation of Italy banded together at one of their lowest points – and, when it was all said and done, they came out of it as champions of the world.

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The Author:

Joe Scaringi