As is so frequently the case for successful Italian teams, expectations as the squad made their way to the dual-host nations of Holland and Belgium were low. Unsmiling coach, Dino Zoff, had guided them through qualification as group winners, but was heavily criticised for a perceived failure to utilise the wealth of attacking talent he had to choose from, particularly in his reluctance to field Juventus’s Alessandro Del Piero alongside Francesco Totti and Pippo Inzaghi up front. The already imperious Gigi Buffon was ruled out of the tournament through injury, as was powerful Inter forward Christian Vieri.
Hopes began to rise, however, when Italy emerged from the group stages with three wins from three. Romania, who had dumped out England with a 3-2 victory in their previous game, were comfortably dispatched in the quarter-finals thanks to first half strikes from Totti and Inzaghi, needing no help from Del Piero on the bench. This set up an enticing semi-final encounter with co-hosts the Netherlands, who went into the tie as clear favourites. As expected, the ever-flamboyant Dutch dominated proceedings from start to finish, and their failure to hit the net over the 120 minutes’ play brought the home spectators to disbelief. If the final was to leave the Italians feeling robbed, the manner in which they got there defied any notion of a merited victory.
Zoff opted to start Del Piero on this occasion, but he made little impact. Instead, Italy’s hero on the day was Buffon’s replacement in goal, Francesco Toldo. After Dennis Bergkamp had rattled the post early on, Boudewijn Zenden twice got the better of Gianluca Zambrotta on the left wing and the full-back was shown his second yellow card after just thirty-three minutes of play. Holland set about making their extra man count, and won a questionable penalty before half-time as Alessandro Nesta tussled with Patrick Kluivert in the box. Frank de Boer’s spot-kick was thwarted, however, by a fine save from Toldo low to his left.
The men in orange continued to press in the second half, and Edgar Davids masterfully spun past Mark Iuliano to win a second Dutch penalty. This time it was Kluivert who stepped up, sending Toldo the wrong way only to see his kick strike the base of the post. By extra time, an aura of impenetrability seemed to have enclosed the Italian goal, and both Kluivert and Davids missed good chances. Italy had one opportunity to snatch an undeserved victory before the final whistle when a hopeful long ball sent striker Marco Delvecchio (brought on in place of Inzaghi in the second half) clear, but Edwin Van Der Saar was able to tip his shot past the post.
Going into a shoot-out having already missed twice from the spot is an unenviable position, and Holland’s opening penalty produced a repeat of the first half as Toldo saved from De Boer. There were also clearly psychological issues at play when centre-half Jaap Stam famously blasted his kick high into the Amsterdam Arena stands. The Italians, meanwhile, converted all but one of their penalties, with Luigi Di Biagio laying to rest the ghosts of his miss in the previous World Cup and Totti audaciously deploying his trademark Cucchiaio chip. The match was won with yet another Toldo stop, this time from Paul Bosvelt, which secured the victorious ‘keeper the following morning’s headlines at home.
That win meant a showdown in Rotterdam with reigning world champions France, who had knocked out the Azzurri from the spot two years previously at the Stade de France. Again the Italians were underdogs, but they produced a far more expansive display than most had anticipated, dominating possession for large spells in stark contrast to the resilient Catenaccio they had deployed against the Dutch. The first half produced chances for both sides with Thierry Henry, Youri Djorkaeff and Delvecchio – who was this time selected by Zoff at the expense of both Del Piero and Inzaghi – coming close. Ten minutes into the second half, it was the tall Italian who broke the deadlock.
The goal was orchestrated by the man who had provided the Azzurri’s sole source of offensive creativity throughout the tournament, and the sort of talent who Antonio Conte would dearly love to have in his prime this summer – Francesco Totti. Back-to-goal on the outside of the penalty area and with seemingly little in the way of passing possibilities, Totti paused and drew in two French defenders before executing an inch-perfect backheeled through-ball. That set Gianluca Pessotto free on the wing with France’s offside trap completely fooled, and his accurate cross was guided in on the volley by Delvecchio.
The remainder of the match saw Italy’s best chance to reclaim the European trophy slip agonisingly from their grasp. Zoff sent on Del Piero to act as a focal point for counter-attacks, and his plan proved effective as the substitute was sent clear on goal twice in the closing minutes. The striker, however, was somehow unable to hit the net on either occasion, putting one wide and hitting the other straight at Fabian Barthez. He was left to rue those misses when, fifteen seconds from the final whistle, substitute Sylvain Wiltord slid a French equaliser underneath a despairing Toldo.
In its short but dramatic life as a feature of international tournaments, the golden goal rule was to make no more seismic an impact as it did that night in Rotterdam. With thirteen minutes of extra time played, the Italian defence was caught uncharacteristically playing around with possession deep in their own half. They were pickpocketed by Robert Pires, who danced past two tackles on the left wing before dinking in a cross from close to the by-line. Striker David Trezeguez had recently signed to become Del Piero’s new teammate at Juve, and in a cruel twist of fate it was he who crashed home to end the match and break Italian hearts.
That victory made France both European and World champions, and their status as international untouchables was no less deserved than Spain’s was in 2012. Zoff’s men returned to Italy in minor triumph having comfortably surpassed expectations, and the markedly weaker squad of 2016 would be delighted with such a showing. Del Piero later redeemed himself, of course, with an extra time semi-final goal that sent Italy on their way to World Cup victory in 2006. But on the night, there was little that could soften the blow of coming so close to lifting the European trophy and passing up a guilt-edged opportunity to do so. The culprit was beyond consolation.
“Every time I close my eyes, all I see are the two chances I failed to take,” a distraught Del Piero told a reporter after the match. “I simply cannot forgive myself.”
Words by Tom Guerriero-Davies: @TomGDella