In 1998, Dino Zoff picked up the Italian national team after the bitterness of a World Cup defeat to France, one which felt particularly pungent after the two excellent tournaments in 1990 and 1994. It was the end of an era, and a time to rebuild. The glorious nineties were over, and the next stop was the new millennium.
Zoff opens his management on the 5 September 1998, in a game played in Liverpool against Wales. The 2-0 victory for the Azzurri is not enough to conceal the team’s limitations – the game appears tired and stilted. As Zoff pulls his sleeves back to get to work, the question he confronts is one that the contemporary management of the Azzurri is not unfamiliar with – a tension between forward-pulling youngsters and august veterans. Among the stars who seemed certain to take part in Euro 2000 were midfielders Dino Baggio and Diego Fuser, goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi and, of course, legendary striker Roberto Baggio. Few could have imagined that none of these players would even be called up.
Zoff’s game was not impressive during the qualifying campaign. Experiments were plenty, but a real chemistry between the various departments of the squad was seldom there to behold. The good news was the defence. Even though the role of the keeper was still to be defined, with the figure of Gianluigi Buffon peeping up from the pastures of his youth and those of Francesco Toldo, Christian Abbiati and Peruzzi himself providing an excellent assortment, the central defenders on offer represented the expression of a golden age which Italy had not experienced since the 1970s and which has yet to be repeated. Paolo Maldini, Ciro Ferrara, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Mark Iuliano – an astonishing catalogue.
In retrospect, Zoff may have shaped his entire team around the abundance of defenders, because the formation he chose (an eclectic 3-5-2) boasted three central defenders and two wingers who were, at all effects, full-backs. The left wing was given to Gianluca Pessotto, an old hand from the World Cup. On the right, Zoff went for freshness and made a choice which back then was far from obvious – Gianluca Zambrotta, who went on to become Italy’s best modern full-back. The three men in central midfield allowed for several options inasmuch as they could be reshuffled without great tactical consequence. Two excellent names stood out – Stefano Fiore, back then in his prime, as the creative outlet and offensive second line, and all-round footballer Demetrio Albertini, perhaps Italy’s best midfielder of that decade alongside Giuseppe Giannini. Antonio Conte, Massimo Ambrosini and Luigi Di Biagio competed for the third spot as starter.
The selections relating to the offence deserve a discussion of their own. The abundance of retrospectively outstanding players in that department was almost as great as it was in defence. Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero both fought their own demons for the place of creative forward while the effervescent star of much-discussed youngster Francesco Totti was beginning to dawn behind the horizon. More concrete prima puntas also came for a penny a handful, with Christian Vieri the best performer from the World Cup and Filippo Inzaghi, Vincenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio providing the alternatives. Seven names for two positions, and multiple possibilities for combinations (even the obvious coupling of a creative player alongside a gritty one was not a given – Zoff had shown a taste for duos of short terminators like Montella next to Inzaghi). It was all very strong and all very young, except for Baggio aged 33 and middle-aged Delvecchio at 27. In the end, the competition amid prima puntas excluded the only one considered to be indispensable – Vieri fell away to injury, and his three alternatives were all called up. As for the creative players, Zoff astounded the Italian peninsula by leaving Baggio home in favour of the youngest and most doubtful of the available forwards, 23-year old Totti – an incredibly brave decision which almost no-one backed up at the time. It was probably dictated by questions of tactical versatility – Totti, aside from playing as and alongside a forward, could also come back and take the place of creative midfielder Fiore, while Baggio could not – but it is no less surprising for that. Del Piero, aged a very healthy 25, finalised the list.
Summer rolled along, and amid flags and television logos, the tournament began. It was the year 2000, and it was time to see how Italy would inaugurate the new millennium. We mentioned that Italy’s game had not been very impressive during the qualifying campaign. This was carried over to the first game in the official tournament. Italy had been favoured by luck when the time came for the draw, but their match against Turkey saw them gaining an advantage in the first twenty-five minutes with a bicycle kick by Conte, only to wane like a winter flower after that. The Turks equalised with Okan, and the referee leant the Azzurri a hand by awarding a dubious penalty on Inzaghi (converted by the man himself). Had the opponent been more skilled at taking advantage of open spaces and opportunities, the game might have had a very different finale.
By the time the game against Belgium rolled along, things picked up. Zoff deserves credit for this. As all truly successful Coaches, he stood behind his core decisions and altered the surrounding details. He did not bench Toldo and Totti, both of whom had appeared questionable and nervous in the first match, and he had the brilliant intuition of placing Iuliano in the centre of the defence (alongside Nesta and Cannavaro) and shifting Maldini to the left wing in place of Pessotto. All of these players had an excellent second game – Maldini almost created a goal in Italy’s crushing blitzkrieg opening, Totti blazed into the scoreboards with a spectacular dive to head Albertini’s dead-ball cross into the back of the net, Toldo made at least two crucial saves in the second half of the game and Fiore, despite suffering the intensity of the Belgian wings on his flank, managed to punish their careless coverage of spaces and close the blue victory with a second-half goal. The game ended on 2-0 for Italy, with goals by the two most creative players of the team (Totti and Fiore) and a collective execution which showed far greater confidence.
With six points in the bag and qualification already assured, Zoff sent in the second lines for the final match against Sweden. The result was comforting – Italy’s game was passive, yet even so they prevailed by 2-1, with a goal by midfielder Luigi Di Biagio and an absolute screamer from outside the box by Del Piero (both reserves, but fielded as starters on this occasion). As importantly, Toldo kept up the impressive performance of the previous game, suggesting that Zoff’s selection of the man over his competitors had been a shrewd one. Time would prove this even further. With confidence soaring after the third consecutive victory, Italy went on to confront Romania in the quarter-finals. The match was handled in comfort. The Romanian game, based on swift passing geometries in the midfield and heavy reliance on the offside trap, had proved pleasing and effective so far. But it was the last thing anyone should have used against the Azzurri. Impenetrable in their own half of the field, the boys in blue sat back with the patience of the insect and let their adversaries play their game. Finally, in the second half, some creases began to appear in the confidence of the Romanians, and the Azzurri stabbed them for it at once. Totti was the first to score when the off-side trap back-fired for the men from the Baltic, and Inzaghi followed suit. The two forwards, by now, had more than legitimated their call-up. It seemed that the tactician’s foresight was paying off.
The semi-finals opened their gates. The adversaries were the terrible Dutch of Edgar Davids, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert, playing at home in the homogeneously orange ring of the Amsterdam Arena. Zoff seemed intent on playing a more defensive game this time around, switching Conte for Di Biagio and Totti for Del Piero. The intuition proves fruitful for the midfielders, as Di Biagio gives a truly substantial contribution in the centre of the pitch and in the containment of Davids, but it seems misconceived with the forwards. Del Piero does not shine and, in the absence of Totti, Fiore is too isolated to provide creativity going forward. The game is initially played at slow paces by intention as much as by necessity. Then Zambrotta shows all his age (or lack thereof) and earns himself two yellow cards for his fouls, leaving the team ever more asphyxiated with only 33 minutes of the game already played. On 38 minutes, the referee, obviously not in a mood to show the Italians any favours, awards a rather dubious penalty to the Dutch for a foul by Nesta on Kluivert. Toldo’s save is majestic. The scoreboards remain blank.
To say that Italy suffered, on that day, would be an understatement. The game saw the Dutch completely in command from beginning to end. Zoff sent in Delvecchio instead of Inzaghi to add momentum and Pessotto instead of Albertini to add breath. With ten minutes of the game to go, Zoff even threw Totti into the mix, giving some rest to an exhausted Fiore. It was too little, too late. The Dutch were awarded a second penalty and the chance to close the match, but Kluivert hit the post and demolished whatever was left of his own hope. The game belonged to the defenders – Nesta and Cannavaro, who were immense, but it belonged to Toldo above everyone else. Italy had perhaps two chances in the entire game, one of which came in extra-time. When the game leaked into the penalties, both teams shuddered. Neither had passed a round of penalties over the entire last decade. But the day belonged to Toldo, as we said, and two more penalties died on his gloved hands, effectively sealing the Azzurri victory. Let us close our account of that game on the last penalty scored by Italy, one which still stands dear to many. Totti is up for taking it, and he tells his comrades, “I’m gonna give him the spoon.” Then he walks up and chips the ball from below, as though lifting it with a spoon, and it floats gently into the net. It was an aesthetically beautiful penalty – some signature to brush the word ‘fantasia’ into the greens of the Amsterdam Arena.
Did the Azzurri deserve to win the match? Probably not, although Toldo earned himself the final and more. At the same time, though, there is some justice in the result. The Dutch were awarded a home stadium, numerical superiority and two penalties in favour – and they still failed to close the match. You cannot afford such a lack of incisiveness in football. Remarkable lamentations were heard from the Orange (and not only them) regarding Italy’s defensive game, but the Dutch have no-one to blame but themselves. If Italy did not particularly deserve to win the match, Holland certainly deserved to lose it.
At all events, any outstanding debts Italy may have had with fortune after the semis were paid for with interest in the heartbreak final against France. Les Bleus were at the brightest peak of their golden moment as well as World Cup champions. They made for an even more intimidating adversary than Holland, yet once the game started, it was the Italians who stepped up to the centre-stage. The midfield was theirs to dominate and their game was more elegant. When the second half began and the first goal came, it belonged to the academia of football. A back-heel through-ball by Totti goes through the French defence and finds Pessotto, who crosses it first-touch into the box. For Delvecchio, it is only too easy to tap it into the back of the net. Strike one.
The French struggled against fate for the remainder of the match. Zinedine Zidane attempted a few shots, but for all his legendary aura, that night the eye of the camera was not for him. Rather, the most dangerous man on his side was a young and mostly obscure newcomer called Thierry Henry. Every time he descended down his flank, it was like witnessing a hawk diving upon prey. Cannavaro had a night of headaches. Yet for all of the French pressure (which was constant but, to be fair, not particularly original in execution), it was again the Azzurri who had the two best chances. Del Piero was introduced in the second half to revitalise the offence, and twice a through-ball by Totti (perhaps on his best game ever played with the Azzurri) placed him face to face with French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. Twice Del Piero failed to pierce him, and the rule which damned the Dutch held true for the Italians – football punishes those who are not incisive. With barely thirty seconds to go and Italian bands already knotted onto the Cup, Sylvain Wiltord galloped down the left and succeeded in the impossible feat of beating Toldo. Extra time was unlocked, and David Trezeguet was unleashed. Two goals to one for the men in the darker blue, and with the old rules of the Golden Goal still in act, the Azzurri were denied even the chance to fight back. Au revoir.
In the aftermath of the night of tears, Silvio Berlusconi, the current Italian prime minister and back then leader of the Forza Italia party, launched his opinion like a bomb. Never one to mingle words, the man who recently praised newly elected US president Barack Obama for “having a nice tan” spoke out as follows: “You cannot leave Zidane unmarked and free to initiate all adversary initiatives without placing, at least in the final minutes, someone to man-mark him. It’s impossible for a professional Coach not to see that. This is disgraceful.” Zoff, on the other hand, was graceful in his response – he handed in his resignation. The role would pass on to Giovanni Trapattoni.
Dino Zoff was not the best Coach that Italy has ever had, but his adventure to the summits of the Euro 2000 tournament could teach the current management a lot. Zoff struggled occasionally with the fluidity of his game and the moral spirit of his team, but he was not afraid to ditch the older champions in favour of the untested young players. Among the names he called up for the tournament, twelve were aged twenty-seven or below while only six were thirty or above (with the remaining six all being in their prime). Some of the boys he used became the foundations of the national team for the whole following decade, four of whom were starters in the team that later went on to win the World Cup (Zambrotta, Totti, Nesta, and Cannavaro, though the latter two were not introduced to the Azzurri by Zoff). Even if we were to lay aside the posterior effects of his investment, it must be said that those same boys gave Zoff the final and came 30 seconds away from winning the cup. For all the ‘disgraceful’ things one can choose to remember about Zoff, there is a lesson to be learnt from that – one which has never seemed as pertinent as it is today.