A LOVE LETTER TO AZZURRI’S CLASS OF ‘06
When Paulo Rossi was banned from football for two years for getting his hands dirty in a betting scandal, his return to Enzo Bearzot’s squad for the World Cup was one that raised eyebrows. Cut to the end of España ’82 and Rossi ended as the Golden Boot winner with 6 goals and the Italians lifting the coveted trophy. In 2006, scandal returned in horrid fashion as the Calciopoli was a disaster for Italian football and there was no running away from it. However, from the ashes of a national sporting disaster rose a bright Azzurri blue phoenix which saw the Italians battle their way to the ultimate and most prestigious award in world football, the Jules Rimet trophy or what is known worldwide as the World Cup. A strange coincidence, but one that makes one ponder if it was simply written in the stars.
At the time, it was hard to imagine Italy ever winning anything after their disastrous Euro 2004 campaign, being knocked out in the group stages by Sweden and Denmark with what the Italians call a biscotto or a convenient 2-2 draw in that case, which was exactly what both teams needed to go through and dump an unbeaten Italy out of the tournament. Not only the Euros but Italy hadn’t won anything internationally since 1982 with the likes of Marco Tardelli, Paolo Rossi and Dino Zoff spearheading the Italian job to triumphant effect. They’d also lost to South Korea in the previous World Cup in 2002 after a very controversial game where there were many conspiracy theories around the referee Byron Moreno’s display. Famously, Italy also lost the Euro 2000 final to a golden goal scored by David Trezeguet in extra time. An Italian blurting out ‘oh the irony!’ six years later would not be in the dramatic in the least.
When you reflect on Italy’s team in 2006, you start to realize that it wasn’t by fortune or a just stumbling upon a lucky run of games that they lifted gold. It was a team full of absolute legends that joined forces to form a machine so well-oiled that even the Germans had to sit up and take notice. To appreciate the fact that the class of ’06 were cut from a different cloth, it’s essential to remind oneself of their road to victory.
The Italian Job
In a group that included Ghana, USA and the Czech Republic, Italy emerged unscathed with 2-0, 1-1 and 2-0 scores respectively. They beat Australia 1-0, thanks to a last-minute penalty converted by Francesco Totti in a vital Round of 16 clash that became too close for comfort. On their hunt for the ultimate prize, they also beat Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine 3-0, courtesy of a Luca Toni double and a goal from Gianluca Zambrotta to seal the deal. They knocked the hosts out in their own backyard in cruel fashion by vanquishing a German side in extra time, with Fabio Grosso scoring an exquisite left-footed winner as Andrea Pirlo delivered that no-look assist that fooled everyone in the stadium, including the Die Mannschaft backline while Alessandro Del Piero left Jens Lehmann rooted to his spot after finishing off a swift Italian counter attack.
Grosso went on to score the all-important spot kick in a final for the ages against France and the Italians were crowned champions for the 4th time and not many can say they weren’t worthy winners. Let’s dive deeper and analyze the strengths of an Azzurri team oozed finesse and steel.
Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles
Let’s start with the only player who’s still well in the game- Gigi Buffon. He carried a monumental influence in the team and was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the time. The Juventus stalwart conceded a mere two goals in the whole tournament, with one being an own goal and the other ending up in the back of the net after a certain Zinedine Zidane opened the scoring from 12 yards out in the final.
However, if the man in between the sticks was a class act, nothing less can be said about the four warriors stood in front of him. With Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Grosso forming the Italian defence, they went into the tournament with a defensive core that was unmatchable, on paper as well as on the pitch. While Nesta injured himself in the first game against Ghana, which looked like a massive blow, Marco Materazzi replaced the Milan centre-back and fitted like a glove. At the time, most of the Azzurri faithful felt he wouldn’t be able to keep up and clearly didn’t possess the class or quality Nesta did, but oh boy did the Inter defender make his doubter eat their words. Without a doubt, Materazzi was a catalyst during the World Cup, not just for his defensive excellence, but his aura and goalscoring ability as well, whether that’s against the Czech Republic in a group stage tie or in the final where he slotted his penalty during the shootout.
While his entire campaign is unsurprisingly remembered only for his spat with Zidane where he took verbal insults to familial digs, leading to the Frenchman seeing red and headbutting him and ultimately, be given the marching orders by the referee.
No Italian would encourage such behavior but there is no denying that gamesmanship, even of such uninspiring levels has been witnessed on the biggest stages by other such characters like Sergio Ramos who would do just about anything to win a trophy. Despite whatever happened, Materazzi’s immense partnership with Cannavaro is one that remains underrated, especially as the former had to replace none other than the impenetrable Nesta.
Speaking of Cannavaro, all one can say is what a player he was. The Azzurri captain had the tournament of his life in 2006. He delivered spectacular performances throughout the competition and proved to be the heart of everything lionhearted that the Italians represented. In particular against Germany in the semi-finals, Cannavaro was a wall and started the counter-attack for the second goal. It’s not easy beating Germany in their own backyard, let alone in a World Cup semi-final. Cannavaro was probably Italy’s best player and it was his leadership, admittedly an intangible asset that led Italy to reigning over the world. Deservedly, he also bagged the FIFA Player of the Year in 2006 which shows that his displays reached unseen heights.
Gianluca Zambrotta, again another legend of Italian football was consistently brilliant throughout the competition until he faced Ukraine in the quarters where he peaked, scoring a fantastic long-range effort and providing a sumptuous assist to Luca Toni. The fact that Christian Zaccardo did step in for Zambrotta against USA and scored that famous own goal, the only game in which Italy didn’t win and only managed a 1-1 draw shows that the latter’s absence was felt, albeit for even one game. Then there’s Fabio Grosso.
At the time, Grosso was playing for the newly promoted side Palermo and had a very good season along with Andrea Barzagli and Simone Barone and as a result, he was called up for the national team. When Palermo got promoted, Grosso could never have imagined he would score one of the best World cup goals ever in extra time against the hosts, let alone the winning penalty in the shootout against France in what turned out to an epic battle. The tournament was an absolute fairy tale the left-back who punched above his weight like it was nobody’s business.
A midfield that outthought, outfought and outplayed the rest
You have the engine room, the grafter and the man that progressed the ball forward, Daniele De Rossi. The technician, thinker and architect of the entire game, Andrea Pirlo. Then you have the rottweiler in the middle of the park, the ball winner, the injection of unrivalled passion in Gennaro Gattuso. There you have the perfect balance of everything you need in a perfect midfield as De Rossi and Gattuso’s heavy metal style of play was given a certain finesse by Pirlo functioning as the orchestrator.
Pirlo and Gattuso were a part of a very special AC Milan team and they already knew everything about how to operate best when in tandem and took De Rossi under their wing as the aforementioned duo primarily started. I’Archittecto was a fundamental part of Italy’s success, the regista who pulled the strings and dictated the tempo of the 90 minutes. A fond memory that can serve as one of his greatest highlight reels from the competition was when the midfield maestro scored Italy’s opening goal against Ghana with a typical Pirloesque strike from outside the box.
This midfield was vital to everything great about the Azzurri as they could play dirty, hounding teams and getting stuck in with Gattuso and De Rossi playing at their all-action peak with Pirlo could lay a no-look assist on the plate for Grosso against a brilliant German side in the 119th minute as if he’s playing in the park with a couple of mates with nothing on the line. Domination came naturally to these midfield juggernauts and they all had their own way of reigning supreme.
Taking Things Forward
Francesco Totti, in his second striker oozed class and quality. One can remember how he came up clutch as he scored a penalty in the Round of 16 tie against Australia in injury time. Roma’s eternal captain wasn’t even 100% fit to play in the World Cup but Lippi still took him. You can’t really blame the boss for taking a punt on a player who was more than just a forward, but one of football’s greatest leader of men.
He was excellent throughout the tournament and learnt his lesson from his previous debacles like getting sent off for spitting at Denmark’s Poulsen in Euro 2004. Totti didn’t put a foot wrong and played some of his best football, proving that he was so much more than a mere goalscorer. The man he played behind wasn’t at his brilliant best, however.
Toni only scored two goals both against Ukraine, but he was key in holding up play and was able to support his teammates while defending set pieces. He had been prolific for Fiorentina in Serie A so it was strange to see him struggle to be more impactful.
Two names you may not have heard of as much but were still important members of the squad were Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camorenesi. Two hard working pacy wingers, Camorenesi, who also qualified to play for Argentina had always struggled to wear the Azzurri shirt due to his ties with Argentina but that didn’t mean he didn’t give his all in every game. Perrota, an English born Italian was able to live his childhood dream and represent his country of origin in the World Cup. This pair were essential, yet underrated members of the starting XI as they were vital when Italy hit teams on the counter and at the same time, never shied away from putting a shift in.
The Dream Bench
In my opinion, a real team’s strength lies in its depth. If a team has quality replacements for an already formidable team then they can keep the same tempo and superiority throughout the whole 90 minutes and longer. What was sitting on Italy’s bench?
Players like Barzagli, Zaccardo, Inzaghi, Del Piero, Gilardino, Barone, Iaquinta and Oddo. Even Buffon was backed up with Marco Amelia and the veteran Angelo Perruzzi. With maybe the exception of Zaccardo and Barone who were out of form at the time, these were some world class players who have continued to transcend history. I’ll also let you in to a little Italian prophecy about Alberto Gilardino. Gilardino was destined to win a World cup with Italy as the story goes. Did you know that he was born on the exact day Paolo Rossi scored a hattrick against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup? Coincidental of course but pulls at the strings of the romantic in every football fan.
However, when Del Piero and Inzaghi are at your disposal, waiting on the wings, you know your squad is absolutely stacked with superstars. Pippo’s ice cold finish against the Czechs was just a reminder of the fact that even on the wrong side of 30, he never stopped being special.
Marcelo Lippi: The man with a plan
At the helm of this, the puppet master was Marcello Lippi. The extremely experienced Italian coach who had managed all over Serie A but was most known for his time at Juve, Lippi famously lost his first game 2-0 against Iceland and at the time, the only manager that lost on his debut had been Enzo Bearzot who happened to be the World Cup winning manager in 1982. Fate was certainly an underlying theme behind Italy’s incredible triumph. Whether it was destiny can be debated but he got everything spot on, from his team selection to the right substitutions at the right time. He was able to manage the dressing room just as well. Regardless of the fact that Serie A had been plagued by scandals, Lippi made sure his troops had only winning on their mind.
As an Italian, this is my love letter to a team full of legends. Never would I have imagined when the World Cup started that my country would do well, let alone go on to win it in such dramatic fashion. I can remember my father making an Italy flag using old gazebo poles and making my brother stand through the sunroof waving it whilst we drove around. This win meant so much to Italy as a nation. The Italians live and breathe football. You can bet on that when they are sat in their piazzas, sipping on an espresso on a warm evening, all they want to do is talk football and especially about that sensational team. What a day that was, the 9th July 2006.