‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we look back at a football final, won off the field as much as on it, and a team that beat history.
The word relic might be a bit of a misnomer in describing this game. For, it doesn’t exactly hail from the storied era of black and white photographs, but from relatively recent and frenzied times: 2000 to be exact. France and Italy were in their prime, as European footballing powerhouses. Totti and Del Piero were living legends, and in Zidane, Desailly and Vieira France had proven World Cup winners. Not one of the players who featured then, play today. And yet, so many of them remain household names.
History, though, was against the defending World Cup champions as they went into the game. No World Cup winner from the European continent had won the following Euro tournament, ever. Considering the many Italian exploits on the World stage, this trend had a lot more to do with Italian failings than the Azzuri would have liked to admit. Facing off against a dogged French side with an explosive Thierry Henry at the front, the Italians had the added incentive of denying the French something their own illustrious predecessors had failed to achieve.
Both France and Italy were tested throughout the tournament, with co-hosts Netherlands beating France 3-2 in a group stage game. Netherlands with a rampaging Kluivert in their midst looked destined for great things, before a tenacious Italian side held their nerves to beat them 3-1 in the penalty shootout of the semi-finals.
Spain offered France a bigger test than Romania did Italy, in the quarterfinals. But both semi-finals turned out to be nerve-wracking affairs that went into extra time. Italy produced a defensive masterclass that downed the Netherlands in a penalty shootout while France needed an extra-time winner to see off a Figo-inspired Portugal. In Toldo, the Italians arguably had the best goalkeeper in the world, and a penalty shootout in the finals would suit them just fine. For its part, France would need to settle the game in regulation time after a series of close calls.
In Roger Lemerre, the French had a respected and steady hand, while Dino Zoff was a tactician par excellence. Two decorated, celebrated managers going head to head, outshone only by the stellar talent at their disposal on the field. As predicted, Zoff went in with a packed defense to keep the French at bay; the talented Cannavaro paired up with Pessotto and were tasked with keeping Henry quiet. On the opposite flank, it fell to Maldini to deal with the dangerous Djorkaeff. It was an imperious looking Italian defense that faced off against France.
In Blanc and Desailly, France had their own share of warriors in defense, but if Lemerre was hoping to make history the magic would have to come from elsewhere. Where France really excelled was in their midfield; with Deschamps and Vieira and Zidane operating in a midfield triangle, most sides would be starved of space and time on the ball.
If France went in with an expected line-up, Italy made two changes that would alter the way the game would usually have panned out. Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi were rested, in favor of the more attacking-minded pair of Roma teammates Delvecchio and Totti. It certainly looked to have paid off, as Italy nearly caught France unawares in the opening exchanges. Italy looked more likely to score as France grappled with an unexpectedly direct approach from their opponents.
Referee Anders Frisk, who would later became famous for all the wrong reasons, had a busy day handing out a total of 5 yellows, and waving off what might have been a red card offence when Marcel Desailly elbowed Cannavaro as the two teams tussled in the French box for a corner. For his part, Henry – who would go scoreless on the night – caused sufficient trouble to the Italian defence. Henry was menacing enough to ensure he was the only one of France’s forwards not to be replaced on the night. The first half ended scoreless, as France could mostly only sniff at the goal from distance while Italy arguably had the better chances, with Totti consipiring to miss what was the best opportunity in the first half.
France started the second half more brightly than they did the first, and when Zidane and Henry combined after the whistle to nearly give France the lead, Zoff rung in his changes. This would prove to be a game decided by the subsitutions, as much as anything that transpired on-field. If the game itself was a breathless spectacle, the subdued activity on the sidelines was more of a chess game. Zoff had correctly guessed Lemerre’s team wouldn’t come out of the blocks racing, and sought to hit them with a more direct approach.
But as soon as France began to show glimpses of a return to form in the second half, Zoff raced to bring on his trusted lieutenant Del Piero. It seemed to work wonders, as a French defense whose eyes were now firmly trained on Del Piero, let Totti and Pessotto take advantage of some lax defending from Blanc and Lizarazu. A brilliant cross from Pessotto, saw Delvecchio knock in Italy’s opener, with Desailly’s flailing leg failing to meet the ball.
It was always going to be difficult for France to crack Italy’s defense, and with the Azurri now in the lead, France would find it even harder to score considering their opponents were the pastmasters at shutting down shop. With Del Piero now ruling the roost, instead of Fiore, Italy now had experience too on their side. And yet, it would be Del Piero who would let down his side.
With France amassing its ranks up front in search of a desperate equalizer and bringing on Wiltord in place of Dugarry, Italy were primed to hit them on the counter. Even as Wiltord threatened to equalize, it was Italy’s earlier subsitution that had the bigger impact. Del Piero had two chances to put the game firmly beyond France’s reach and conspired to miss both. The first of his chances, came just minutes after Delvecchio’s opener, but Del Piero could only manage to shoot wide in the face of an onrushing Barthez. Barthez would earn his stripes yet again, when a meek effort from Del Piero found the French goalkeeper instead of the back of the net with just five minutes to go.
With both Del Piero and Francisco Totti rated as among Italy’s best, and expected to have an influence on the game, only Totti lived up to the billing – pulling out all the stops to put in a man of the match performance. Had the Italy’s lead lasted another minute, Totti’s influence on the game and his calm probing of the French defense would have been hailed as one of the performances of the year. Sadly, for him and for Italy, it was not to be.
With 90 minutes of regulation time now over, and the clock ticking down on injury time, France would pull one final rabbit out of the hat. Lemerre had traded in accomplished-midfielder Pires instead of left-back Lizarazu, and Trezeguet earlier for Djorkaeff. But it was France’s first substitute Sylvain Wiltord that brought the French bench to their feet. Trezeguet wrested control of a ball deep in Italian territory, after a long ball from a desperate Barthez. A wary Cannavaro regained control of the ball, only to head it right in the path of Wiltord.
Wiltord needed no second invitation; he was on target past a Toldo who had hitherto been at the top of his game. Even the best defenses make mistakes, but the Italians chose to make theirs in the dying moments of the game. As France rejoiced, the Italians were rocked on the back foot and never seemed to recover.
France began extra time the more tenacious side, with self-belief coursing through their veins. Substitute Pires nearly won the game for France just four minutes into the game, with Toldo having to pull off a magical save to keep Italy in the game. Trezeguet collided with Toldo who needed medical attention for a bloody nose, and perhaps that was an omen the Italians should have recognized.
When the three players interacted again, minutes later, Pires won the ball on the left from a poor clearance by Albertini and went on a rampage unchallenged by a beleaguered Italian defense. He delivered an inch-perfect pass for a hungry-looking Trezeguet who scorched the back of Toldo’s net with a worthy winner. Never had a Golden Goal winner offered so much drama. As Trezeguet ripped his shirt off in celebration, the Italians looked understandably crestfallen.
It was a triumph that would certify France’s emergence as a dominant football nation and one whose sole World Cup triupmh went beyond the home-ground advantage afforded to them during their memorable triumph over Brazil in Paris a couple of years earlier. It also laid the groundwork for a more steely-eyed defensive attitude that would see the likes of Cannavaro go on to lead Italy to its own World Cup triumph, six years later.
You would be hard-pressed to find a final in which all the substitutes played such telling roles. Years from now, enthusiasts will look back at this game with the same curiosity we reserve for those played in Pele’s and Garrincha’s times, and wonder what it was like when giants like Zidane and Maldini ruled the field. And how it was lesser men that decided the fate of one particular game they both played.