Welcome once again to Bleacher Report's series of Italy World Cup Rewinds. Over the last few months we've been looking at some of the best—and worst—moments in Italy's World Cup history.
There are World Cups where special players, like Pele or Maradona, make the entire tournament theirs. Then there are Cups where a squad player rises to the occasion and makes the world remember his name forever. That was what happened on July 4, 2006 in Dortumund, Germany—the day all of Italy fell in love with a defender from Rome named Fabio Grosso.
Today we remember the 2006 World Cup semifinal—a game between Italy and Germany that may well deserve the title "Match of the New Century."
The 2006 World Cup was held in Germany. West Germany hosted the tournament in 1974, but 2006 would be the first time a unified German state would host.
The selection process, which took four rounds of voting, was marred by a bribery hoax by a satirical German newspaper. One delegate, Charles Dempsey of New Zealand, abstained from the final round in a surprise move, giving the Germans the tournament by a vote. The reasons behind his decision were never clear, but there were calls for a re-vote when the allegations became public.
Of the 32 participants, eight of them were going for the very first time. Half of that number were African nations: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Angola and Togo. Trinidad and Tobago made their first appearance out of CONCACAF. Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Serbia and Montenegro all made their first appearances as independent nations. In the case of the latter it was also the last, as Serbia and Montenegro further split into independent states before 2010.
Some big names had failed to qualify, including 2002 third-place side Turkey and Euro 2004 winner Greece. Belgium and Cameroon missed the tournament for the first time since 1978 and '86, respectively. Austria, on the other hand, made it back to the big stage for the first time since 1974.
The tournament saw a run of goals throughout the group stage, but the knockout stages were much cagier. This likely had something to do with the aggression shown in those matches. Players were shown a record 345 yellow cards and 28 reds—including a single-game record of 16 yellows and four reds in the Round of 16 match between Portugal and the Netherlands that became known as the Battle of Nuremberg.
The extreme number of cards led to calls for FIFA to reevaluate referee imperatives and give the officials more discretion. It also led to a new suspension system to ensure that a team's best players would not be suspended for late-stage games by accumulating two yellow cards several games apart.
The run-up to the World Cup for Italy in 2006 was not unlike the run-up to their last championship in 1982—for all the wrong reasons.
Like 1982, the Italians entered the tournament under the cloud of a match-fixing scandal. The Calciopoli affair had broken in the weeks before the tournament, leading to open pessimism about Italy's chances.
The draw didn't help things.
Two of the teams Italy was drawn with—the United States and the Czech Republic—were in the top 10 at the time of the draw and both in the top five when the tournament started. Ironically, neither team made it out of the group, proving their rankings (computed on a system that was changed right after the tournament) vastly inflated.
Contrary to expectations, the Azzurri rampaged through the group. They started play with a 2-0 victory over Ghana, with goals from Andrea Pirlo and Vincenzo Iaquinta. That was followed by a violent match against the US that saw one Italian and two Americans sent off. The game ended 1-1 and saw Italy concede their only goal of the group stage—an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo.
With first place in the group on the line, Italy faced the Czech Republic, who needed a win to advance. Unfortunately for the upstarts, the Italians dominated them, scoring through Marco Materazzi and Filippo Inzaghi and securing the top spot in the group.
The Round of 16 saw the Italians pitted against Group F runner-up Australia. Materazzi was controversially sent off five minutes into the second half, but the shorthanded Italians kept the Socceroos from scoring. The game looked set to go to extra time when left-back Fabio Grosso went down in the Australian box in stoppage time. Referee Luis Medina Cantalejo controversially ruled that Lucas Neil had brought him down, and Francesco Totti sent Italy to the quarters with the last kick of the game.
The quarters started brightly. Six minutes in Gianluca Zambrotta opened the scoring with a fantastic long-range effort. A pair of poached goals by Luca Toni in the second half sent Italy to the semifinal for the first time since their trip to the final in 1994.
Waiting for them were the hosts. Jurgen Klinsmann's club had run roughshod over Costa Rica and Ecuador and eked out a stoppage time winner in a politically charged match against Poland.
A pair of early goals from Lukas Podolski saw the Germans send Sweden packing. They faced Argentina in the quarters. Center-back Roberto Ayala opened the scoring in the 49th minute before Miroslav Klose equalized 10 minutes from time.
The match went to penalties.
Jens Lehmann then caused a minor sensation when he pulled a sheet of notes out of his sock with the tendencies of Argentina's potential penalty takers. They must have been right because he blocked two of them to send the Germans to a meeting with their old World Cup foes.
As if the shadow of the scandal could not get any darker, the proposed punishments for the involved clubs were announced the day of the match. Thirteen members of Italy's 23-man roster were on the accused clubs—and of those 13, seven were slated to start, with one more almost assured of significant action off the bench. It must have been a monumental distraction.
To make matters worse, the game was being played at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund—a place where Die Mannschaft had never been defeated.
There were a few lights at the end of Italy's tunnel. After the media kicked up a furor over video footage of the ugly brawl that had followed Germany's quarterfinal with Argentina, FIFA had suspended starting midfielder Torsten Frings for striking Julio Cruz. His place was taken by Sebastian Kehl, with Frings' absence looming large over the game.
The other pole the Italians clung to was this: Germany had never defeated Italy in a competitive match.
The two teams had met three times in the World Cup and twice more in the European Championships and Germany had only managed three draws and two losses. One of those losses was the Match of the Century.
The other was the 1982 final.
Italy marched onto the field in Dortmund in an all-blue kit. Germany wore their traditional white shirts and black shorts with white socks. Klinsmann sent his team out in a 4-4-2 with Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski at the top. Lippi's Azzurri were deployed in a 4-4-1-1 with Francesco Totti in the hole behind Luca Toni. Mexico's Benito Archundia held the whistle.
The stage was set for one of the greatest matches of the 21st century.
Italy came out stronger early. The first chance of the match came on a long-distance free kick from Totti that was comfortably caught by Lehman.
Shortly thereafter the Germans had a decent penalty appeal ignored when a flick into the box by Michael Ballack bounced off Andrea Pirlo's shoulder. No whistle blew and the Italians counterattacked. Totti found Roma teammate Simone Perrotta with a through ball. The midfielder's first touch was just strong enough for Lehman to intervene before he could properly line up a shot, and Perrotta was whistled for a foul on Lehman as the ball bounced loose, ending the game's first truly deadly opportunity.
Italy continued to press the favorites. A set play from a wing free kick saw Pirlo find Totti behind the penalty spot, but his shot into traffic was blocked and then cleared for a throw.
The next Italian movement saw Fabio Grosso make his first mark on the game. A first-time through ball from Perrotta found the left-back, who nutmegged his defender and crossed along the ground to Toni, whose shot from point-blank range was blocked by Christoph Metzelder for a corner kick.
Germany then had their first chance. A rare errant pass from Pirlo saw Germany break from an advanced position. Klose slipped a pass to Bernd Schneider, whose powerful shot from the right channel buzzed over the crossbar by the width of the ball.
Back on the other side Pirlo sent a free kick into Lehman's box, but Mauro Camoranesi headed it over the bar.
Halftime arrived with the two old enemies in a goalless deadlock.
The hosts asserted themselves much more in the second half. Early on, Klose took a pass from Kehl and dribbled deep into the Italian half. Tracked by Gennaro Gattuso, he shook off Italy's bulldog and powered through a half-hearted challenge in the box from Fabio Cannavaro. The challenge never came close to winning the ball but did throw Klose off, allowing Gianluigi Buffon—in the midst of a 453-minute streak of not conceding—came off his line and slid in feet-first, clearing the danger.
Italy counterattacked immediately. Grosso dribbled around Ballack and sent the ball to Totti. The ball then came to Andrea Pirlo, whose incisive pass found Grosso cutting in on the left wing. The defender dribbled too far, however, and Lehman arrived quickly—but it was all for nought as Grosso was correctly flagged offside.
Germany had the next chance. Schneider's pass from the right wing found Podolski in front of Marco Materazzi. The 21-year-old executed a deft turn and fired point-blank, but the shot was right at Buffon, whose parry was sent well over the bar by Arne Friedrich.
Klinsmann's men continued to press. A 19-yard free kick from inside the penalty arc was sent off target by Ballack, leaving the German captain in disbelief at his sizable miss.
Italy wasn't out of the game and had a chance not long after the 74th-minute introduction of Alberto Gilardino. The Milan forward headed a long ball from Pirlo to Totti, who again sought his club-mate Perrotta with a through ball. The effort was just too strong, allowing Lehman to make a last-ditch dive to punch the ball clear. He won the ball cleanly, but his follow-through caught Perrotta around the neck in a moment that recalled the clash between Harald Schumacher and Patrick Battiston in 1982. Fortunately, both men rose and continued playing.
Ninety minutes was not enough for either team to score. Just as it had been in 1970, Italy and Germany were going to extra time.
Marcello Lippi had reserved two of his substitutions, and he made the first of these at the start of extra time, replacing Camoranesi with Vincenzo Iaquinta.
Italy almost took the lead within a minute of the restart when the ball ricocheted off a German tackler and fell to Gilardino. Metzelder, the defender tracking him, fell down, leaving Gilardino alone on the right wing. He dribbled around an onrushing Ballack and squeezed a shot into the space between Lehman and the post.
The ball pinged off the pipes. It skittered across the goalmouth and was collected by a grateful German defense.
Barely a minute later Gilardino headed a Pirlo cross back to Gianluca Zambrotta, who unleashed a violent drive that slammed off the top of the crossbar and into the crowd. Within three minutes the Italians had struck the frame of the goal twice, causing Sky Italia commentator Fabio Caressa to exclaim "Non e possibile!"
Germany then got back on the attack. David Odonkor, a speedy winger introduced into the game in the 83rd minute, fired in a cross that found Podolski, but the youngster's header was well wide.
Just before the halfway mark of extra time, Lippi unleashed his trump card. Alessandro Del Piero made his way on the field to replace Perrotta.
Just after the teams changed ends, a pass from Pirlo was flicked high into the box by Totti and landed at Del Piero's feet. His back was to the goal and Friedrich and Lehman prevented him from turning. He laid the ball back to an onrushing Iaquinta but the Germans blocked the shot.
Germany immediately mounted a counterattack that gave them their best chance of the entire match. It ended with Kehl finding Podolski unmarked on the left channel, just outside the left post. Cannavaro arrived to challenge, but Podolski took his time and unleashed a powerful shot that 99 times out of 100 would have been a goal.
On this day, though, the man opposite him was Gigi Buffon. Already a legend, Buffon made his best save of the tournament, reaching up with one hand and powering the ball over for a corner.
Time was ticking away.
Italy was now fully staring into the frightening prospect of penalties. The Azzurri had been eliminated via shootout in three consecutive tournaments from 1990 to 1998—including Roberto Baggio's excruciating miss in the 1994 final—and to that point the Euro 2000 semifinal was their only success in shootouts.
As the game entered its final three minutes no one would have guessed that penalties would not be required.
It started with a powerful long-distance shot by Andrea Pirlo. The effort was pushed wide by Lehman for a corner. Del Piero came up to take the kick, moving normal kick taker Pirlo to a position just above the box. Del Piero's outswinger was headed out, but only as far as L'architetto. Pirlo gathered the ball in the center of the penalty arc and with four touches dribbled to the right channel. Without looking up, he passed the ball with the inside of his foot to an unmarked Fabio Grosso, who swung his foot at it.
The ball bent around Lehman's outstretched hand and burrowed into the net.
Bedlam in Dortmund.
On Sky Italia, Caressa screamed a now-classic call:
GOL! GOL! GOL! GROSSO! GROSSO! GOL! GOL DI GROSSO! GOL DI GROSSO! GOL DI GROSSO! MANCA UN MINUTO! MANCA UN MINUTO! GOL DI GROSSO! GOL DI GROSSO! GOL DI GROSSO! INCREDIBILE! INCREDIBILE! SIAMO SOPRA E MANCA UN MINUTO! SIAMO SOPRA E MANCA UN MINUTO! GOL DI GROSSO!
On the field, Grosso evoked the pure emotion of Marco Tardelli's goal celebration in the final 24 years before. When the ball hit the net he turned and sprinted half the length of the field screaming the words "Non mi credo"—I don't believe it. His run was ended when Zambrotta, Cannavaro and Buffon finally caught and dogpiled him. On the opposing bench, Klinsmann could only clap his hands and exhort his charges to move forward and make a miracle.
The Germans bombed forward. Odonkor blazed down the right side and sent in a cross that was met by Materazzi. The clearance only went as far as Ballack, but the German captain blazed far over the bar. Buffon put the ball back in play and Iaquinta desperately attempted to keep possession.
When the Germans were able to get the ball back they sent in a desperate cross that was met by Cannavaro. The ball came out to Podolski, but Cannavaro had followed the ball and rose again to head it away before the German striker could take it down. He came out with such power that he nearly collided with Totti, who shot a pass forward to Gilardino. Finding himself one-on-one with Metzelder, he cut inside.
The German left was entirely exposed, and it was on this side that Alessandro Del Piero was now streaking in. Gilardino slipped the ball past Metzelder and into open space in the box for Del Piero to latch on, right in the so-called "Del Piero Zone."
Del Piero had been in this situation before. Six years earlier he had an almost identical shot lined up in the final of Euro 2000 against France with the chance to kill the game off. He scuffed it, and France equalized in stoppage time, eventually winning in extra time.
This time he made no mistake. With the final kick of the match he chipped the ball past Lehman into the corner. Caressa again delivered a classic call, ending it by repeating the phrase "Andiamo a Berlino!"
Off to Berlin the Italians were indeed, to play in their sixth final.
Italy advanced to the final. The next day France defeated Portugal to set up another showdown with a rival for the final at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. That match will be covered in the next edition of this series.
Germany defeated Portugal 3-1 in the consolation game, the first of two consecutive third-place finishes at the World Cup. They also finished runners up of Euro 2008, continuing a trend of Germany playing the role of bridesmaid at major tournaments. Their run of futility against Italy continued—to this day the Germans have yet to defeat the Azzurri in a competitive match.
Jurgen Klinsmann declined to renew his contract with Germany despite garnering acclaim for his performance as manager, citing a desire to spend time with his family. His top assistant Joachim Low was appointed in his place. In 2008 he was appointed manager at Bayern Munich but lasted less than a season before being sacked due to conflict with the club's hierarchy. He is currently the manager of the United States national team.