Until the final minutes of extra time at the Westfalenstadion, the deadlock was yet to be broken between semi-finalists Germany and Italy.
The hosts were favourites for the tournament, while expectations in the country of their perennial foes weren’t exactly high for the visitors after the Calciopoli scandal erupted in May 2006, damaging crucial preparations and denting national pride barely a month before the World Cup began.
Following two poor tournaments, Italy’s road to the penultimate stage in 2006 had seemed unlikely before their imperial march kicked off in Hanover. The fact that they eventually progressed to the final would have been lesser so had the unlikeliest of heroes not emerged – a man whose left foot wasn’t renowned for its goalscoring prowess – sending Italy, team and country, into ruptures and on their way to Berlin.
“If they were being honest,” wrote John Foot in Calcio: A History of Italian Football, “few Italian fans even knew what (Fabio) Grosso looked like before the tournament began.”
That would change in the summer of 2006, after his name would forever be etched in history and in memory.
From humble beginnings…
Grosso began his career as an attacking midfielder with Renato Curi in the regional Eccellenza Abruzzo, and five years before the World Cup, he was playing in the Italian fourth tier with Chieti.
Attaining promotion in his final season at the club earned him a move to Serie A side Perugia, where he would be deployed at left-back for the first time. After being sent off on his debut against Inter, Grosso gradually forced his way back as a regular, and was handed his first Azzurri cap by Giovanni Trapattoni in 2003.
He then made the switch to Palermo, at that point a division below, in January 2004, after which the Sicilian club were promoted and Perugia were relegated. A stellar campaign in the top flight as part of a stalwart defensive pairing with fellow international Andrea Barzagli followed, and so did another national team call-up, this time from Marcelo Lippi.
Although he wasn’t meant to be in the starting line-up right from the beginning, his inclusion in the 23-man squad would prove to be a decision that would lift him up to stratospheric levels of cult hero status.
Destiny calls: The 2006 World Cup
Unexpectedly, Grosso stepped in for the injured first-choice left-back Gianluca Zambrotta for the opener against Ghana. In the next match against USA, Zambrotta slotted back in, although after right-back Cristian Zaccardo’s substandard performance and disastrous own goal denied Italy a win, Grosso returned for the final group game against Czech Republic, with Zambrotta switching flanks.
After advancing to the first knockout stage as group winners, Grosso stepped to the fore against Australia in the round of 16, winning a penalty deep into stoppage time when Lucas Neill took him down with a clumsy challenge.
Francesco Totti did what Totti does, and Italy routinely dispatched Ukraine in the next round to set up the breathless end-to-end affair that was the semi-final. Seven players who started that night in Dortmund and a further six on the bench played for ‘Calciopoli’ clubs. If the shadow of that fiasco loomed large over the squad, it did not show. Instead, it was almost as if it electrified the desire of collective redemption during a time of desperation. And so, they powered on, going toe-to-toe with the new generation of Die Mannschaft under Jürgen Klinsmann.
Golden chances were wasted and stinging efforts were saved, and there were no real spells of dominance. As entertaining as it was, it was only the warm-up for the main event: extra time. Jens Lehmann was beaten twice, first by Alberto Gilardino and then by Zambrotta, but the goalpost stood in their way, denying them by the narrowest of margins. Lukas Podolski headed wide and forced a brilliant save from Gianluigi Buffon; Andrea Pirlo did likewise to Lehmann. For all the talent on the pitch, it seemed that the only logical conclusion would be that penalties beckoned.
Except, Lippi’s tactics were anything but logical. Perhaps even more impressively, they had been consistent in that manner throughout the tournament. By this moment, he had gone full anti-catenaccio, bringing on Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta, and Gilardino to play alongside Totti up front. That, and the tiring of legs from the intense encounter between the two powerhouses, was taken full advantage of by both sides, but Italy managed to go one step – or, more accurately, two steps – further.
A headed clearance from Del Piero’s corner fell to Pirlo on the edge of the area, and l’Architetto waited for the perfect moment. Just when it felt like he had waited too long, Pirlo reminded everyone of his impeccable timing near the very end of extra time, threading an audacious no-look pass between Christoph Metzelder and Bastian Schweinsteiger to the unmarked Grosso. The left-back connected with the through-ball perfectly – and with the instinct of a striker, curled it around Michael Ballack and into Lehmann’s far corner.
The goal stunned Germany and broke their spirit. Del Piero’s superb curled finish with the last kick of the game would knock them out, and Grosso’s penalty in the final against France would make them world champions.
Without that strike in the 119th minute, however, Italy might not even have been there.
The reaction from Sky Italia commentator Fabio Caressa was hardly the most articulate, but captured perfectly the essence of how every Italian felt at that moment. He wasn’t the only one screaming.
On the pitch, Grosso wheeled away in celebration, frantically shaking his head, howling three words that encapsulated the thoughts of an entire nation: “Non ci credo!”
Illustration by Ifrha (@ifrha3)