Prior to 2006, watching Italy at a major tournament had resulted in traumatic sporting memories for me.
The World Cup Final in 1994 will always be remembered for Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss. When I watch the highlights, I remember the eerie silence as my extended family left my house in disbelief. The only noises heard in my house for the rest of the day were curse words from my dad, no doubt realising how big of a missed opportunity the loss was.
Euro 2000 was just as bad as I – now 13 and fully immersed in Inter, Serie A and all things football – counted down the minutes in the final. Marco Delvecchio’s goal in the 55th minute looked destined to make up for the disappointment of six years prior.
Instead, it made what happened that much crueler. My family had already brought our flags to the car, ready to wave them out the windows as we drove down the streets. Sylvain Wiltord and David Trezeguet ensured that scenario never played out.
Once again I sat in shock in front of TV, wondering why the footballing gods were picking the cruelest of ways to torture my victory-starved soul.
The less said about the World Cup in Korea and Japan two years later the better. All I will say is I was writing a maths exam during that infamous controversy against Korea.
I passed my exam, but it almost didn’t matter to me. Italy had done it to me again.
It made 2006 all the more stunning. At that point I had come to expect disappointment, especially in light of the Calciopoli scandal that rocked Serie A. We had good players – who in hindsight were more than just good – but other countries could rely on names like Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Fernando Torres.
All of these things made Italy’s run to the semi-finals all the more surprising. The Germans stood in our way, and while we had always beaten them at major tournaments up to that point, all signs pointed to that streak coming to an end.
The home nation had cruised through the group stage, got past Argentina on penalties and would play in front of 65,000 fans at the intimidating Westfalenstadion – a stadium the Germans had never lost in. Their media made it seem as though a spot in the final was a sure thing.
I remember thinking to myself that if – and what a big if that was – Italy won, the World Cup was ours. In hindsight, there was no reason for me to feel that way. Italy had never been able to close the deal in my lifetime, but given the steep challenge that playing Germany at home in a World Cup semi-final posed, I felt this would truly be our greatest test.
The match itself was a tense and cagey affair. Italy played better over the course of the 90 minutes, but it wasn’t enough, so the match headed for extra-time without a goal. My nerves became more frayed when Alberto Gilardino and Gianluca Zambrotta hit the post, and dread began to creep in as we headed for penalties with every passing minute.
The scars left behind by penalty shootout defeats in 1994 and 1998 loomed large in my mind, but more so in my dad’s. The stress proved too much for him, and before extra-time started he headed out to the local bakery.
We didn’t need bread as much as he needed to step away from the TV because another crushing defeat was staring him right in the face. He didn’t see Italy hit the two posts, but it was probably for the better. It was as if the footballing gods were being extra cruel on us this time.
That all changed with one pass.
“Palla tagliata, messa fuori c’è Pirlo, Pirlo, Pirlo ancora Pirlo di tacco, il tiro… gooool, gooool, gooool, Grosso, Grosso, gooool, gol di Grosso, gol di Grosso.”
We all know the famous Fabio Caressa call. My dad had come home by that time but he sat outside the door smoking a cigarette, within ear shot of the open window so that he could hear the call of the game. Knowing him, he felt that he would bring some bad mojo to the team if he came back in and watched after leaving the house.
When Grosso scored, I jumped. I screamed. I jumped again. I hugged my girlfriend, I hugged my mom. I came back down to Earth and turned to my dad, but I noticed he hadn’t moved.
He sat still as ever, face pointed to the street as he gently wiped his eyes.
Alessandro Del Piero added a second, but he didn’t see that either. At that point there were no more gentle wipes. His eyes were buried in his hands as the magnitude of what happened hit him with full force. We were going to Berlin.
He passed away in 2012, but I’ll always remember his favourite line to say whenever we watched the match on VHS.
“How the f*** did Grosso score that? I don’t know how he did it.”
The how doesn’t really matter. The fact is he did, and because of it, one of Italy’s finest World Cup memories was created and still endures today.