by Angelo Fiorini

‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.’ - William Shakespeare.In the Autumn of 1847 Goffredo Mameli sat down and wrote ‘Il Canto degli Italiani’, a piece that has has since become known as L’Inno di Mameli, the national anthem of Italy.  

Football fans around the world will have become familiar with the hymn that is sung with much gusto by players and fans alike during major tournaments. The opening words of the anthem are ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ (Brothers of Italy) and looking back on the Azzurri’s triumph one could say that these words perfectly encapsulate the Italian national team of 2006.

Managed by Marcello Lippi, the silver-haired genius that Sir Alex Ferguson compared to Paul Newman, Italy arrived in Germany under the shadow of Calciopoli, the match fixing scandal that turned the world of calcio upside down. The sombre mood of the nation meant that, for once, expectations of the Azzurri were not over-inflated, there existing a feeling that the repercussions of the scandal were going to be a massive burden for the players to carry.

Italy v Ghana, 12 June, Hanover

As a result, it was with a sense of apprehension that Italy would begin their campaign against Ghana. However, as is often the case in sport, in times of adversity the best can be brought out in the players involved, and a certain siege mentality can develop within a team. This soon became evident with the Azzurri.

I was fortunate enough to be present in the AWD-Arena for the opening game against Ghana and, watching the players closely, it was clear to see that they meant business. In particular, Cannavaro and Nesta caught my eye in the way they marshaled the defence. Italy’s midfield dominated the game with Pirlo pulling the strings, and it was his goal that set the wheels in motion for a 2-0 win which also saw him setting up the security goal scored by Vincenzo Iaquinta.  It was by no means a vintage performance, but it was mission accomplished for Lippi’s men and, having seeing them play in the flesh, there was a sense of unity evident that made me think, maybe, just maybe, this team could achieve something special.

Italy v USA, 17 June, Kaiserslautern

Of course, there was a heightened level of optimism amongst the Italian press and fans following the opening game win (almost as if the nation needed something positive to hold on to following the emergence of Calciopoli) and hopes were high going into the second group game versus USA in Kaiserlsautern.

The Azzurri started well and Gilardino’s diving header from Pirlo’s free kick put them one up. This was about as good as it got for Italy on the night because, as so often is the case, they made life difficult for themselves. Cristian Zaccardo scored an own-goal which would turn out to be the only goal conceded from open play (albeit from a corner) by Italy in the tournament.  Daniele De Rossi complicated things even further with a brutal elbow to McBride’s face which resulted in him being sent off.  The Americans also had two players sent off as the game turned into a dogfight ending in a 1-1 draw, a result which meant the Azzurri would need at least a point from the final Group game against the Czech Republic to guarantee qualification for the last sixteen.

Italy v Czech Republic, 22 June 2006, Hamburg

In reality, the Italians needed to go for the win in the final group game to avoid a potential last sixteen tie against Brazil. The Czechs, and in particular a player that many of the Azzurri players were familiar with in Pavel Nedved, provided some nervous moments and this shakiness was only compounded when defensive stalwart Alessandro Nesta had to leave the pitch due to injury. This was the third consecutive World Cup that was cut short due to injury for the Roman following similar fates in 1998 and 2002, and was a bitter blow for the Azzurri.

Little did we know that the player that would take his place in central defence would become such a pivotal figure for the Azzurri in the weeks ahead. It was none other than Marco Materazzi (The Matrix), and he made an immediate impact scoring a towering header from a Totti corner that put Italy 1-0 up. This was the start of a period in Materazzi’s career that would change his life forever and make him perhaps the most controversial figure of the 2006 World Cup. Super sub Pippo Inzaghi sealed the victory for the Azzurri in typical fashion by breaking the offside trap, rounding the keeper and tapping home after being released by the increasingly effective Totti.

Italy v Australia, 26 June, Kaiserslautern

On to Kaiserlsautern it was then for the Azzurri who would face an Australia side managed by Guus Hiddink, a man who had been at the helm of the South Korean side that had controversially eliminated Italy in the 2002 World Cup. The Australians would provide a stern test, and this turned out to be one of those typical knock-out games in which the Azzurri fans are made to suffer but in the end see their team advance. This was mainly down to the fact that they had to play the majority of the second half with ten men following the dismissal of Marco Materazzi.

With the numerical disadvantage Italy struggled to create any chances and there were some anxious moments, but luckily Cannavaro and Buffon were in imperious form at the back and Australia failed to capitalize. With fifteen minutes to go Lippi replaced Del Piero with Totti and it proved to be an inspired decision. Er Pupone slotted home an injury time penalty after Fabio Grosso was adjudged to have been taken down by Lucas Neill after being released by an exquisite pass from Totti. The Roma man showed admirable composure in converting the spot kick which proved to be the last kick of the game and saw Italy advance to the quarter finals.

Italy v Ukraine: 30 June, Hamburg

Italy were going into the quarter-final tie against Ukraine in buoyant mood, that was until the distressing news of former Juventus and Italy international Gianluca Pessotto’s attempted suicide reached the team. One of the lasting images of the World Cup is seeing captain Fabio Cannavaro leaving a press conference mid-sentence as the tragic news had filtered through. Del Piero and Zambrotta, along with coach Ciro Ferrara were given leave to visit their colleague in hospital back home.

As difficult as it was, life had to go on for the team and the Azzurri reacted in admirable fashion with a comfortable 3-0 win over the Eastern Europeans. Totti was again instrumental, setting up goals for Zambrotta and Toni, before Zambrotta and Toni themselves combined to score the third and final goal, the big man finally breaking his duck following such a successful domestic season where he finished as capocannoniere in Serie A.  It was fitting that the Azzurri’s most convincing win so far came in the wake of such perturbing news back home, and it appeared to improve the spirit of the team even more, the post-match images of the players carrying the Italian tricolour with the message “Pessottino, siamo con te”, (Pessottino, we are with you) being very poignant indeed.

Italy v Germany: 4 July, Dortmund

The Azzurri had set themselves up with a semi-final against the hosts in Dortmund (a venue where the Germans had never been beaten in their previous fourteen games).  This showdown was going to be the toughest test yet for Lippi’s men as two of the World Cup heavyweights came together in what turned out to be the game of the tournament. As a nation, Germany felt that their team was destined for the final and that perhaps brought some extra pressure on Die Mannschaft. It was a very even contest during the initial ninety minutes and neither team could break the deadlock so extra time was required.

It was then that the game really came into life, and whether it was the Azzurri suddenly recognising how poor their penalty record had been in tournaments or the fact that nerves got the better of the Germans, it was the Azzurri who took the game by the scruff of the neck. Gilardino and Zambrotta both hit the woodwork, and you got the sense that the Germans were on the rack. In the twenty-ninth minute of extra time the deadlock was finally broken with a curling left-footed shot from Grosso (whose Tardelli-esque celebration will go down in memory as one of the tournament’s most enduring images) after a disguised slide-rule pass from the exceptional Pirlo.

In whatever time remained the Germans had to throw everything they had at Italy and this resulted in the Azzurri scoring one of the finest counter-attacking goals in World Cup history. As the ball broke to Podolski in the Italian half, Cannavaro came out of nowhere like a man possessed to steal the ball from the German and break forward. You got the sense that Cannavaro wanted to punt the ball aimlessly up the pitch but Totti then took over by almost shoving him off the ball and continuing the counter attack with an inch-perfect pass for Gilardino. The front man broke forward and waited patiently for his onrushing strike partner Del Piero before slipping the Juve man in with a reverse pass which he duly placed into the top corner with an ice cool finish that sealed victory for the Azzurri.  If ever there was a player who deserved international recognition it was Il Pinturicchio, and this goal would ensure he had written his name in the history books as he finally buried the ghost of Euro 2000.

Italy v France: 9 July, Berlin

So it would be a repeat of the Euro 2000 final between Italy and France to decide who would win the most prestigious prize in football and be crowned World Champions. In the first meaningful attack of the game France were awarded a penalty after that man Materazzi was adjudged to have fouled Florent Malouda. Zinedine Zidane stepped up and cooly chipped the ball into the air and saw it hit the underside of the bar and go behind the line. It was an audacious effort from Zizou and, fortunately for him, lady luck was on his side.

It wasn’t long before Materazzi redeemed himself by scoring a bullet header from Pirlo’s corner, and from then on both teams continued to cancel each other out which forced the game into extra-time. The French seemed to then lift their game, and an outstanding save from Buffon denied Zidane. Cannavaro and Zidane shared a joke as they both looked on in disbelief at the heroic save that the Juve ‘keeper had pulled off.

Then came the moment of madness for which the final will be remembered as Zidane floored Materazzi with a headbutt to the chest. It still remains unclear exactly what was said to the Frenchman (apparently it involved an insult to his sister), but whatever it was it is difficult to justify Zidane’s reaction. Not least because it was in the biggest sporting event in the world with millions of people watching worldwide, but also because it left his team in such a difficult situation by passing the psychological edge to the Italians, a factor that was surely significant in the penalty shoot-out that ensued.

Pirlo, De Rossi, Materazzi and Del Piero all showed nerves of steel to convert their respective penalties and David Trezeguet, the golden goal hero of France’s victory over Italy in Euro 2000, saw his penalty crash off the crossbar. So it was up to Fabio Grosso, the hero of the semi-final, to seal victory for Italy. The left-back duly stepped up and smashed the ball convincingly past Fabien Barthez. The Azzurri were champions of the world.

Seeing the players dash in celebration from the centre circle towards Grosso, there was a sense of disbelief as they all ran deliriously in various directions. This feeling of incredulity was aptly portrayed on the the front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport the following day with the headline ‘TUTTO VERO! CAMPIONI DEL MONDO’  (IT’S TRUE! CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD).

Looking back on the tournament, it is difficult to pick out one individual in particular who was mainly responsible for this sweetest of victories. Buffon was almost faultless, Cannavaro became known as ‘The Berlin Wall’ for his impenetrable performances in defence, Zambrotta and Grosso proved how important attacking full-backs had become in the modern game, Pirlo was the heartbeat of the team in midfield and Totti, who was recovering from a serious injury, had also played a major role. It may be an old cliché, but it had been very much a team effort and the spirit and ‘grinta’ shown by that group of players was perhaps the crucial factor in their success.

To think that this group of players had arrived in Germany under the cloud of Calciopoli makes the victory even more admirable and, for all its faults, one could not begrudge the fact that this was a victory for Italian football. It showed that irrespective of what came to pass off the pitch, the players had the ability and desire to be champions on it. This was a­­ triumph for Calcio achieved by twenty-three ‘Fratelli d’Italia’.

Read more from Angelo on his blog, Cuore Azzurro, and follow him on Twitter.