Classic Azzurri Matches – Italy vs France 2006
July 11, 1982 marked the Azzurri’s third World Cup triumph, confidently defeating West Germany 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, it was the modern day supporters’ turn to gather in large crowds and cheer the Nazionale to victory when the 2006 World Cup was contested.
Italy completed the group stage by going undefeated with two wins and a draw. They clinched the top spot in Group E, conceding just one goal. That led to a meeting with Australia in the round of 16.
Many critics are adamant that the Azzurri were lucky to emerge victorious in that match, narrowly winning 1-0. This Italian side wasn’t one to play all-out attacking football, though. They did, however, confidently brush aside the Ukrainians 3-0 in the quarter-final before snatching an extra time victory over the hosts Germany. That set up a date in the final with their kryptonite at the time; France.
The French were approaching the end of a golden era. The likes of Claude Makelele, Fabian Barthez, Lilian Thuram, and Zinedine Zidane were all aged 33-34. The 23 man squad’s average age was 28.52, but many of their key players were nearing the twilight of their careers. Despite their slightly older team (Italy’s average age was 28.21), they were equally motivated to claim the holy grail.
France won the 1998 World Cup in their own country (beating the Azzurri in the quarter-final on route to the and followed that up with the Euro 2000 title where they defeated Italy. There lied within the Italian motivation heading into the final, but France’s also involved some redemption. Les Bleus were embarrassed in the defence of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 2002, losing in the group stage where they earned just one point. This time, Les Tricolores got past the group with five points, and recorded wins over Spain, Brazil, and Portugal.
Finally, July 9th arrived. World Cup final day. Thousands of Italian and French fans flocked into the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Outside of Germany, millions of other supporters got together in city centres, bars, and restaurants. One game, spanning over two hours, would define one of these nations for years to come. Could Italy finally get the revenge they’ve craved since 2000 or would France make amends for their calamitous 2002 World Cup?
Referee Horacio Elizondo blew his whistle to kickoff the 18th FIFA World Cup final. The match started off rather choppy, with either side exchanging fouls. Gianluca Zambrotta picked up the first booking of the game after just five minutes for a foul on Patrick Vieira.
Moments later, the French’s early pressure paid off. Marco Materazzi was adjudged to have hauled down Florent Malouda in the box, meaning Elizondo had no choice but to award Les Bleus with a penalty. Zidane stepped up to take the spot kick. He stared at the ball, then at former teammate Gianluigi Buffon’s eyes, ran up, and arrowed it off the underside of the crossbar and in. The Azzurri and their supporters didn’t think it crossed the line, but the referee and linesman waved away the protests and confirmed the goal. France were up 1-0 in the sixth minute.
It had been 460 minutes since the Italians last allowed a goal and it was just the second time they conceded in the tournament. What was more key, however, was that the team who scored first went on to win 41 of 56 matches at the 2006 World Cup. France were 73% more likely to win according to that number, but that’s just a stat. After all, there’s a reason why Italy got to the final, they’re the masters of manipulation.
Materazzi eventually redeemed himself shortly thereafter. Off a Mauro Camoranesi corner, the Inter defender leaped, and fired a thundering header past Barthez to level the match at 1-1. Game on.
Despite the increasing influence of Vieira, Makelele, Zidane, and Thierry Henry, Italy mustered the best opportunity after the two goals. From another corner, Luca Toni blasted his header off the bar just before the half. It was as if lady luck would make the Azzurri suffer for a while longer.
Just the first half, the second interval began with France in control, but that was just fine for the Italians. They were absorbing the pressure well, and even with all of the set pieces around their goal, the French couldn’t capitalize on any of them. It was either Buffon’s heroics or a defender doing his job. There was little hope in drawing another foul like the Materazzi error from the sixth minute. Malouda shouted for the second time when Zambrotta clashed with him, but the referee wasn’t having it.
As fate would have it, the match started to turn towards Italy’s favour. Vieira had to leave the game limping and was replaced by Alou Diarra. Following that substitution, the Azzurri dictated the midfield.
Coach Marcello Lippi then threw in Daniele De Rossi for Simone Perrotta to link with Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso. The strength in the centre of the pitch was too much to handle. Even with Zidane operating as a trequartista and Henry ahead of him, they were nullified by Gattuso and De Rossi.
Those tinkers nearly resulted in Italy taking the lead through Toni once again. The commanding forward got his head to a Pirlo free kick and scored, but was narrowly offside when running into the box. The Azzurri’s celebrations were put on hold and France received a wake up call. Henry then forced a save out of Buffon, his 25th of the tournament.
Toni recorded the last quality chance of the half, but just like his previous two attempts, he was foiled. The Fiorentina striker demonstrated some brilliant footwork, then knocked the ball into the air and connected with a half volley. However, Barthez was equal to the task. Toni really deserved a goal, but no matter what part of his body he used, he couldn’t score.
Extra time was needed to solve the outcome. Franck Ribery had the best opportunity, but his shot missed just wide of the right post. France coach Raymond Domenech then made the substitution that would change the dynamic of the match. Ribery was taken off in favour of David Trezeguet.
Besides Zidane’s header that was tipped over the bar by Buffon, not much else happened in the first half of extra time. However, the second would put the final nail in France’s coffin.
With just over 12 minutes left until the dreaded penalty shootout, Materazzi and Zidane exchanged words, some of which ticked off Zidane. He then ran in front of Materazzi and headbutted the defender, who crumbled to the ground.
After a two minute discussion between the referee and his assistant, who witnessed the entire incident, Mr. Elizondo jogged towards Zidane, with his hand in his back pocket, and brandished a red card. Zidane was sent off in his final match as a professional.
The insults directed towards by Materazzi towards the French playmaker were rumoured to be about his sister, but the provocation of Zidane shocked the world. He was meant to exit as a hero, an icon, an inspiration. Instead, he slowly departed the pitch, passing the Jules Rimet Trophy on his way to the tunnel, and walked down the steps for the last time as a footballer.
Ten man France forced a penalty shootout, a scenario they were far more successful in than Italy. The French, after all, defeated the Azzurri in 1998 4-3 on penalties. The 1982 world champions were winless in shootouts while Les Tricolores were 2-1.
Mr. Composure Andrea Pirlo stepped up first against Barthez. He made no mistake and hammered the ball just under the bar in the centre of the goal. Sylvain Wiltord then equalised the shootout after the first round.
Materazzi, who was involved in practically every key moment of the match, buried his spot kick in the bottom right corner, just beating out Barthez’s outstretched hand. Trezeguet was next up for France.
The Juventus forward walked towards the spot, and stared down his club goalkeeper Buffon. Elizondo blew his whistle, then seconds later, Trezeguet smacked the underside of the bar and it bounced away from the net. Italy had a 2-1 advantage, and the man who knew the Italian shot-stopper the best out of any Frenchman (since Zidane was sent off) was the one to give the edge to the Azzurri.
De Rossi and Eric Abidal both converted, making it 3-2 after three rounds. Alessandro Del Piero had every Italian’s heart in their mouths with his long run-up, but ended up chipping the ball down the middle of the net. Willy Sagnol kept France alive and brought Les Bleus back within one.
Fabio Grosso would be the one to take Italy’s decisive penalty. The hero against Germany had a chance to clinch the Azzurri’s fourth world championship with one kick. With the weight of millions on his shoulders, Grosso ran as if he was made of feathers, and placed the ball in the top right corner. Barthez reached with every ounce of flexibility in his body, but couldn’t get to it in time. The ball rippled the mesh, and the Italians were world champions yet again. They are the first and only ones to win it all in a shootout and finally earned a victory through penalties in a World Cup for the first time ever.
It’s been just over seven years since Fabio Cannavaro (who won his 100th international cap that night) hoisted the trophy amidst white confetti. However, now every generation of every Italian family can reminisce about when Italy were on top of the footballing world. It’ll be a day etched in the hearts of every Azzurri supporter, much like July 11th, 1982 was for nearly 24 years before the 2006 victory.