World Cup glory often brings some of the greatest stories ever told in football during the modern era; Brazil winning successive tournaments in 1962 – without the talismanic Pele; England lifting the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil in 1966 at Wembley and Germany’s from-the-roots-up build into World Champions four years ago in Brazil.
2006’s tale in Germany however, is perhaps the greatest and most against-the-odds narrative to ever be written in the sport, when in the face of domestic match-fixing revelations in the top two tiers of domestic football that had brought Italian sport to its’ knees, the Azzurri lifted the World Cup in Berlin.
It was only only two months prior to that famous night in the German capital for Marcello Lippi’s men, that ‘Calciopoli’ as it was dubbed had been uncovered.
The scandal rocked Italian football to the core. After Italian police intercepted telephone dialogue incriminating defending Scudetto winners Juventus and league rivals AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina during the 2004/05 campaign, evidence was uncovered of a network of relations between team managers and referee organisations. Accusations of rigging games by selecting favourable referees began to fly.
Italy and the wider footballing fraternity across the globe were left stunned. The result saw Juve stripped of their two league titles, and relegated to Serie B with a six-point deduction.
Whilst the La Viola and Biancocelesti were also initially demoted – with varying point penalties in the lower leagues – the two were both re-instated after lengthy appeals. The Rossoneri and Reggina escaped with a heavy points deduction.
It was the biggest crisis Italian football had ever faced. Many thought it was an event the men in blue would never recover from however, the players were hellbent on righting the wrongs of the past 24 months and bringing dignity back to a nation’s sporting reputation.
Driven, and led admirably by Ballon d’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian national team began the task of restoring the faith of a nation scorned, to the backdrop of a crumbling domestic scene back home.
As the Azzurri opened their tournament with a resounding 2-0 win over Ghana, pre-tournament doubt and pessimism swiftly returned after an underwhelming draw with the United States.
With Daniele De Rossi getting sent off for elbowing Brian McBride – and his subsequent four-match game ban also – it appeared the poison rife in Serie A, had seeped into the veins of the national team.
With a final group clash against the Czech Republic and with the weight of the world on Italian shoulders, Lippi’s men happily claimed a convincing 2-0 win courtesy of Marco Materazzi and Filippo Inzaghi – despite the former’s dismissal as Italy were reduced to ten men for the second game on the bounce.
Finishing top of the standings, the potential banana skin of Australia awaited in Kaiserslautern, but in a tight game and after Francesco Totti was awarded a last-gasp penalty in the fifth minute of stoppage time; the Italians scraped through into the last eight.
As the fallout from Calciopoli continued back home, Italy were providing much-needed respite for fans of the Azzurri. Furthermore, with the calibre of personnel the men in blue boasted, Lippi’s side now almost miraculously looked capable of mounting a tilt at a fourth world crown.
After dispatching Ukraine, Italy were tasked with facing up against hosts Germany in the semi-finals at the Westfalenstadion. Most expected the Italian odyssey to come to an heroic end.
Indeed for much of the game in Dortmund, Die Mannschaft looked every inch finalists. However, as Italy dug their heels in characteristic fashion, they grew into the game during extra time.
With penalties seemingly on the horizon, Andrea Pirlo found Fabio Grosso in space on the right of the penalty area in the 119th minute, as the full back curled a sublime left footed effort past Jens Lehmann to plunge the German populace into a stunned silence.
For the country, the same Italian press who had been so vitriolic in their words against the establishment suddenly had every reason to be positive, as cities across Italy were turned green, white and red in celebration of reaching the showpiece finale in Berlin.
In a final that will be remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s rendition of a frenzied bull taking on a matador’s red rag, Materazzi leveled after Zidane himself gave France a seventh minute lead.
As the game wore on into extra time, Buffon made an outstanding reflex save to deny a Zidane header, before the talismanic Frenchman stamped – or rather butted – his mark on the game and was dismissed as both sides played out time.
Italy had become one of the most resilient nations from the 12-yard spot and it showed in a penalty clinic as Pirlo, Materazzi, De Rossi and Del Piero slotted flawlessly from the penalty spot, after David Trezeguet had unfathomably missed his spot kick.
It gave Grosso – who just days earlier had sent the hosts packing – the chance to seal World Cup glory. The Palermo man coolly slotted home to send Italy, the Azzurri fans and the political sporting hierarchy back in Esperia into delirium, able to, for one night at least, forget Calciopoli.
With the personnel to be potential champions in 2006, the makeup of the game had surely dampened any hopes of footballing glory in Germany. The Azzurri however, had reminded the world that they could do things right, as they sat on world football’s throne once again.
After the pain and recrimination, the long process of returning the smile back to Italian football had begun in glory.