The Golden Boot
Monday, July 10, 2006
BERLIN, July 9 -- As the World Cup's championship game crawled into a penalty kick tiebreaker Sunday evening, the final, inevitable step in cracking a 1-1 tie between Italy and France, the Azzurri's unceremonious past in shootouts swirled around Olympic Stadium like ghosts that have haunted Italian soccer since its previous title 24 years ago.
History provided painful reminders -- the 1990 semifinal loss to Argentina, the '94 title game heartbreaker to Brazil, the '98 quarterfinal setback to France.
This time, however, everything felt different. Italy had been the best team in this tournament over four weeks, suffocating opponents with its composed defense and utilizing a world-class midfield to mold a comfortable attack. And on this night, France had lost its captain and superstar midfielder, Zinedine Zidane, ejected late in overtime after viciously head-butting an Italian defender in the chest.
In the shootout, when David Trezeguet clanked France's second attempt off the crossbar, the Azzurri's championship awaited them. They did not let the opportunity pass, coolly converted all five kicks, including the clincher by Fabio Grosso, the overtime hero against the Germans five days earlier, to touch off celebrations from the grandstands of this historic arena to the piazzas of Rome.
"We had fear of the penalties," midfielder Gennaro Gattuso said. "Our history was not great."
Penalty kicks are "like the lottery," midfielder Andrea Pirlo added. "Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. This time we were better than them."
It had been a long time since the Italians were better than anyone at the sport's premier gathering, stretching back to 1982, when they defeated West Germany. But by winning a fourth title, they moved within one of all-time leader Brazil and helped bring joy to a soccer-mad nation staggered by a match-fixing scandal in its fabled professional league.
Long before his ejection, Zidane had given Les Bleus the lead in the seventh minute on a penalty kick, but his late-game nemesis, Marco Materazzi, tied it in the 19th with a six-yard header.
It was a promising start to a match that many feared would be a grueling, defensive struggle -- two early goals, vibrant French attacking, Italian resiliency.
French forward Thierry Henry, back to his senses after taking a shoulder to the jaw in the opening minute, headed the ball into the box for Florent Malouda, whose dash was cut short when Materazzi slightly clipped him.
Referee Horacio Elizondo awarded a penalty kick, and Zidane took it. He took a subtle approach, chipping the ball as Gianluigi Buffon dived to his right. The floater hit the crossbar and spun down, clearly crossing the goal line before bouncing back up and off the bar again.
It was the first goal yielded by Italy since its second game of the tournament, a 1-1 tie with the United States three weeks ago on Cristian Zaccardo's own goal. The Azzurri had been attempting to tie a World Cup record for five consecutive shutouts and to set the overall record of six clean sheets in one tournament.