Francesco Toldo: Italy’s unlikely hero

The role of a reserve goalkeeper can be a thankless task: training all week, knowing you will almost certainly spend match day rooted to the bench. When a chance comes, it is often due to the misfortune of others. On the eve of Euro 2000, Francesco Toldo was given his big break.

Prior to the tournament, it seemed inconceivable that anyone other than Gianluigi Buffon would be in-between the posts for the Azzurri. Yet in their final warm-up match against Norway, just days before their tournament opener against Turkey, Buffon broke a finger and was ruled out of the campaign. As Angelo Peruzzi had already refused to be backup, Toldo was thrust into the limelight. His circumstances had been markedly different a few weeks earlier.

Italy coach and goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff had told Toldo he would only be third choice, destined to play no part in Euro 2000. It was not the first time Toldo had been shown no faith.

“At Milan they never really believed in me,” Toldo said of his time at the Rossoneri. “They loaned me out to Verona, Trento and Ravenna before Fiorentina stepped in. I never had the chance to prove what I could do but at Fiorentina I was given the opportunity.”

In three years at Milan, he never made an appearance, but with La Viola he established himself as one of best Italian shot-stoppers of his generation. Despite this, Toldo’s promotion to the Azzurri side in 2000 left many underwhelmed.

Christian Vieri had also been ruled out of the tournament and, as is so often the case, Italy were unfancied by many. But, in typical fashion, they defied the odds on the biggest stage.

Three wins from their three groups games saw confidence soar. Toldo’s group stage was far from smooth sailing though. In the first match against Turkey, remembered for Antonino Conte’s spectacular overhead kick, the Fiorentina goalkeeper was at fault. He failed to come and claim a free kick as future Inter teammate Okan Buruk headed home from close range.

Toldo was saved by a Filippo Inzaghi penalty in Arnhem. The next game saw Italy come up against co-hosts Belgium in Brussels. Toldo made a string of fine saves with the score at 1-0 which proved crucial. Stefano Fiore’s fine effort sealed Italy’s place in the last eight.

In their final group match Italy were second best to a strong Swedish side. Once again Toldo proved the difference. He produced a number of quality stops to deny the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson. A late winner from Alessandro Del Piero completed the smash and grab.

The quarter-finals saw Italy come up against Romania. After being 2-0 up at half time, the Azzurri faced mounting pressure despite Gheorghe Hagi’s dismissal in his last game for the country. Toldo did well to save from Adrian Mutu amongst others to preserve Italy’s clean sheet.
However, many thought Italy’s race had run. A semi-final against co-hosts the Netherlands, who had beaten world champions France in the group stages, in Amsterdam was seen as a bridge too far for Zoff’s men. But it was to be Toldo’s finest hour.

Goalkeepers often shine when their side is on the back foot. Rarely though is a side on the defensive for 120 minutes. But in truth, the Dutch dominated Italy. Dennis Bergkamp smashed the post early on before Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off for a quick succession of yellow cards. Just four minutes later Patrick Kluivert won a debateable penalty but Toldo produced a stunning save to deny Frank de Boer.

A second penalty followed but on this occasion Kluivert stepped up only to see his effort come back off the post. Toldo was well beaten but as the match progressed he stayed strong to deny Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Marc Overmars and substitute Clarence Seedorf.

Toldo was playing in what proved to be a lucky 13th international for Italy almost five years after his debut in Croatia. In his 13 games Toldo had conceded just six goals, a remarkable record. As referee Markus Merk blew for the end of extra time, Toldo had already produced miracles to keep Italy in the tournament. Now in the penalty shoot-out he had the chance to become a national hero.

The first spot kick was a replica of the first half as Toldo saved from De Boer. Toldo needed to do nothing when Jaap Stam blasted over. As the Netherlands crumbled, Italy were almost faultless, typified by Francesco Totti’s remarkable cucchiaio. As Paul Bosvelt stepped up he had to score to keep the co-hosts in their own tournament. But Toldo made another fine save to seal the most unlikely of victories.

Overnight Toldo was the toast of Italy. But you would not have known it. As he collected his man of the match award he was asked about his exploits in the shootout. “I don’t know how I stopped those shots,” he replied, and left the stage.His heroics had set-up a showdown in Rotterdam against France, who had dumped the Azzurri out of the World Cup two years earlier. In contrast to their display against the Netherlands, Italy outplayed the world champions and deservedly lead through Marco Delvecchio. Toldo had little to do before the 94th minute when substitute Sylvain Wiltord slid a close-range effort underneath the despairing Azzurri ‘keeper. Italy were crushed.

With just seven minutes before a penalty shootout, David Trezeguet broke Italian hearts as he scored the golden goal. Once again Toldo had been beaten from close range and could have done nothing more. Italy’s dream was cruelly ended as France celebrated back-to-back major tournament victories.

After his heroics and three clean sheets, Toldo was deservedly named in the team of the tournament. But he and his teammates had missed out on the ultimate prize.

Fast forward six years and when Italy ended their 24-year wait for a national title, it was another unlikely hero which stole the show.

Italy’s defence was crucial in Germany in 2006. Captain Fabio Cannavaro produced stellar performances and would go to win the Ballon d’Or. Fabio Grosso grabbed headlines for his dramatic goal in the semi-final against Germany as well as the winning penalty in the final. But in their final group game against the Czech Republic, Italy were on the ropes.

Unsure of their place in the last 16, Marcello Lippi’s side were dealt a cruel blow. The elegant Alessandro Nesta suffered a recurrence of a thigh injury which would rule him out of the rest of the tournament. In stepped Marco Materazzi and collectively Azzurri fans took in a deep breath. Their fears, though, were unfounded.

Materazzi scored against the Czech Republic to seal Italy’s progression from the group stages but was then harshly dismissed against Australia in the last 16 after an incident that saw him foul his own player. The Inter defender then returned to partner Cannavaro against hosts Germany in the semi-final as Italy withstood a barrage to reach the final in Berlin. Once again Italy faced France in a major final. In a tight and tactical match, Materazzi would provide the drama.

He fouled Florent Malouda for France’s early penalty and quickly headed Italy’s equaliser. In extra-time he was at the centre of an argument with Zinedine Zidane which saw the French talisman bow out of football with his infamous headbutt. Materazzi composed himself to fire home his penalty in the shootout as Italy became four-time world champions. Like Toldo, Materazzi had made the best of someone else’s misfortune to become a central part of a successful Azzurri campaign.

Toldo and Materazzi went on to become teammates at Inter. After the arrival of Julio Cesar in 2005 Toldo played second fiddle to the Brazilian but was happy to take a step back and remain with the club, rather than leave. In May 2010 he bowed out of the game.

As Materazzi was crying with Jose Mourinho in the streets of Madrid, Toldo was, like for much of his career, in the background: he was a substitute for the final leg of Inter’s historic treble. Toldo undoubtedly had more talent than his 28 international caps suggest, though with the emergence of the legendary Buffon, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet, during a balmy summer in 2000, Toldo was certainly in the right place at the right time. And like Materazzi six years later, he made the most of his unlikely opportunity.

Words by Richard Hinman @RichardHinman

Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma’s dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.