Rinaldi Reminisces: Italy-Ukraine International Break Special.
Serie A Weekly is proud to present another episode of this beautifully written feature from well known and respected journalist Giancarlo Rinaldi. As the league takes a break to allow the National teams a turn we do the same as we look into the not-so-distant but oh-so-glorious past. We also take a break from the romance of the fixture itself to bring you Giancarlo’s personal memories of this great game
How lucky Luca shot down my World Cup fears
Superstition and pessimism have always been the cornerstones of my calcio credo. Whenever any major tournament comes around I tend to underplay my own team’s chances, as if mentioning them as contenders might jinx their prospects. And I generally find it better to expect the worst when following Italy, if only in order to be pleasantly surprised when things go well.
That was definitely my attitude in the build-up and early stages of the 2006 World Cup. I struggled to see how the Azzurri could seriously compete for the ultimate prize. I hoped, as I always do, that they might lift the trophy but I was prepared for another summer of heartache and, probably, recrimination.
If there was a game that changed my mind, it was probably the Ukraine match in the quarter-finals. The win somehow acted as a convincer that we had the right mix of players, tactics and good fortune to succeed. The team was starting to have a solid feel about it. Although I never dared to utter what I was thinking, even I was beginning to believe we were good enough to beat anyone left in the tournament.
The fates had been kind to Italy already, of course. A group with Ghana, the USA and Czech Republic was testing but not impossible. It put Marcello Lippi’s men on collision course with Australia in the last 16.
That turned out to be something of an epic with Fabio Grosso winning a controversial penalty duly converted with icy calm by Francesco Totti. It famously sent one Chinese commentator into such rapture that he later had to apologise for his amazing rant. I still listen to it on YouTube whenever I am in need of cheering up.
The win over the Aussies set up the last eight clash with Ukraine. By now all my footballing friends were starting to give me a nudge and a knowing wink every time I met them. “Go on,” they prodded. “Admit it. You must fancy Italy to win it now!” Externally, of course, I would do no such thing. Internally, however, my mind was drifting back to my happiest childhood summer of 1982. “Campioni del Mondo! Campioni del Mondo! Campioni del Mondo!” became my emotional heartbeat, echoing through the 20-odd summers that had been and gone since then.
This time around there was no “group of death” with Argentina and Brazil to be circumnavigated en route to the semi-finals. The more modest demands of Ukraine seemed eminently more straightforward. But veteran Italia watchers like myself know never to take any victory for granted. My father raised me with tales of North Korea. It was his parable for why no opponent should ever be underestimated.
On 30 June in Hamburg, Lippi put out a tried and tested line-up to keep the World Cup dream alive. Gigi Buffon was shielded by Grosso, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Barzagli and Gianluca Zambrotta. Rino Gattuso and Simone Perrotta provided midfield muscle with greater guile expected from Mauro Camoranesi and Andrea Pirlo. The attacking threat came from Totti and Luca Toni – even if the latter was under pressure due to his ongoing goal drought.
Their opponents were, of course, still constructed around the attacking power of Andriy Shevchenko. In the previous round they had come through on penalties against Switzerland. Prior to that, they had recovered from a heavy defeat by Spain in the group stages to see off Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. As competition CVs go, it was not the kind that passed them off as convincing candidates to go much further. Lord Sugar would surely have been pointing the finger at them already, so flimsy were their credentials.
I remember feeling unnaturally confident, for me anyway, about the outcome. And that was only reinforced when Zambrotta gave Italy an early lead. His thrusting run and low drive which evaded the grasp of Oleksandr Shovkovskyi had an almost inevitable feel. All we needed now was for big Luca to come alive.
He duly did, but not before the Azzurri gave a masterclass in defensive resolve. Buffon clattered his head off a goalpost while saving an Andriy Gusin header. He then produced another fine parry to deny Shevchenko before a goal-line clearance helped him out with a follow-up shot. The Gods were clearly with Club Italia.
The nerves were eased when Toni struck with a header on 59 minutes to spark his trademark hand-wave-at-the-ear celebration. And when another Gusin header hit the crossbar it was clear the fates were smiling on Italy. Toni duly settled matters when he tapped in from another searing Zambrotta run.
“I told the boys in the dressing room that anyone who felt satisfied by being among the top four teams in the world was way off course,” said Lippi afterwards. “Now that we are there we have got to give everything to try to win. It would be wrong to settle for getting this far. But they have an exceptional team spirit and I am sure they will maintain their level of play. We’ll need to give it all our energy and all our heart.”
And asked about Toni’s goals he quipped: “Thank goodness they came along. He has struck 80 goals in three years, now was not the moment to stop scoring.”
“The bad things people have been saying have hurt me,” admitted the big front man. “They said I was overweight, that I couldn’t score anymore and I wasn’t trying in training. All I needed was a bit of luck and I gave my answer on a night I will remember for a long time.”
It paved the way for the epic victories over Germany and France that would stitch a fourth star on Italy’s shirts. Those gripping encounters were the kind of clashes that shred the nerves and leave a supporter emotionally drained. I remember feeling joyously numb when the final penalty clinched triumph in Berlin. All my pessimism and superstition had produced the ultimate end result. Or, more likely, they had just been proved completely pointless.