Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A 12 year absence

For any Italian footy fan, the image on the left is etched in his/her memory. With his team needing the penalty to stay alive in the first penalty shoot out in World Cup finals history, Roberto Baggio sent his spot kick sky high. The 'divine pony tail', as he was fondly known to his adoring fans, put his head down in sheer disbelief. After almost single handedly carrying his nation to football's holy grail, including stunning performances against Nigeria and Bulgaria, he had just let down the entire nation. I remember the whole game & the incredible shock after the miss quite clearly. I had just returned from my 2 week trip to Israel with Carmel College, and was eagerly awaiting the game after following most of the World Cup in Israel. Italy's run had captivated the whole nation, and even my parents & little sister sat with me in our lounge watching the game. Only some fantastic saves by the 'wonderful' (just quoting my Mom here!) Gianluca Pagliuca managed to keep Brazil from breaking down the stubborn Italian defense. However, the cruel penalty shootout would finally put an end to the Italian dream ...

Fast forward 12 years later (granted, I'd be watching the game in Jerusalem, my sister in London and my parents & little brother in New York) to 2006 and Italy again had a chance to make amends for the previous generation's errors. A daunting game against the hosting nation, Germany, stood in between Italy and another Final's appearance. The first 90 minutes provided few chances, with Simone Perotta and Bernd Schneider both guilty of missing golden opportunities to put their teams ahead. As extra time loomed, Marcello Lippi, a defensive minded head coach, threw caution to the wind by substituting tiring right winger Mauro Camoranesi for the fresh legs of Udinese striker, Vincenzo Iaquinta. This move almost paid off immediate dividends with the substitute's presence on the right flank allowing Alberto Gilardino to hit the post on a determined individual effort, and Gianluca Zambrotta to hit the bar with a thundering drive off a corner won by the aforementioned Iaquinta. With the first period of extra time ending, Lippi yet again made a surprising tactical move by taking off Simone Perotta, who put in a fantastic performance, and replacing him with Alessandro Del Piero, the man who replaced Roberto Baggio as Juventus and Italy's golden boy. Del Piero's history with the Azzurri has been a bitter sweet one. Although he's always played well for Italy, he was guilty of failing to put away the French in the 2000 European Championships final, missing two golden opportunities. The French would eventually tie the game in the waning moments of normal time and win the game with a golden goal. History seemed to be playing the same cruel trick on Del Piero as he missed the net completely late in the 2nd period of extra time after Jens Lehmann took a 'field trip' in the box. With the game set to go into penalties, a stage where the Germans had never lost and the Italians had never won, Fabio Grosso stepped up and etched his name in Italian football history in the 119th minute of the game. After a fantastic pass by man of the match Andrea Pirlo, Gross struck a one time, curling shot into the upper left corner of Lehmann's net, leaving the German keeper with no chance whatsoever. Grosso, who's celebrations reminded some Italians of Marco Tardelli's similar act in the 1982 Finals against West Germany, had yet again played a critical role in the dying minutes of a game (He won the hotly disputed penalty against Australia in the 2nd Round). Seconds later, Del Piero would finish off the game by scoring a goal after a fantastic fast break move by the Italians. As he ran to celebrate, the refree blew the whistle and Italy eagerly awaited the winners of the Portugal-France game. 6 games down, 1 to go to reclaim the Crown we last won in 1982 ... Forza Azzurri!

Here are the highlights from yesterday's riveting 2-0 win:

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