Watching a football game free of emotional attachment can be a rewarding experience. It unburdens you to study a game’s unique tactical nuances, sub-plots and refereeing decisions without any hint of conscious bias.
For someone who watches a high volume of football throughout the year, the World Cup is the pinnacle of global sporting stakes; national pride is on the line, virtually the entirety of your home country is counting on not only your talent but your collective strength of character and will to deliver.
4 July 2006, the venue: Borussia Dortmund’s feared Westfalenstadion, where host nation Germany boasted an impeccable record of thirteen wins and a solitary draw from their 14 appearances at the home of one of Europe’s most revered clubs.
In contrast, while Italy had been quietly negotiating the earlier tournament stages, a sizeable portion of the squad were being dogged by controversy surrounding the “Calciopoli” scandal, not least Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero and captain Fabio Cannavaro whose heavily implicated Juventus side were facing demotion to the third tier.
Normal time proved elusive as far as goalscoring, or even clear-cut chances, went. The game was being played on an absolute knife-edge, both teams seemingly prioritising nullifying the opposition’s attack over utilising their own weaponry, but the encounter was growing to be no less absorbing nonetheless – there was a tangible feeling that one goal for either side would earn a World Cup Final spot.
Extra-time came by, and soon enough a cathartic sense of liberation was manifesting, as both sides began to take more risks. Italy were gradually gaining a foothold in midfield and appeared to be intent on scoring before a shootout, conscious of the Germans’ favourable record at penalties.
Substitute Alberto Gilardino and full-back Gianluca Zambrotta both saw efforts strike the woodwork, while Buffon was also called into action at the other end, making a brilliant one-handed save from the standout German attacker Lukas Podolski.
The moment then came, two minutes shy of the shootout, when the genius flickered.
An Italian corner was cleared to the edge of the area when Andrea Pirlo slipped a deceiving forward pass, oozing with exquisite precision, through for Fabio Grosso, who made no mistake in curling past Jens Lehmann.
Grosso wheeled away in celebration, shaking his head in sheer disbelief at the enormity of the moment, before being bundled by his jubilant teammates.
Simultaneously, the deafening silence that enveloped Signul Iduna Park, at that numbing moment in time, could not have been more representative of the entire expectant German nation.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s side poured forward in predictable desperation, but the colossal captain Fabio Cannavaro stole the ball and set Gilardino away who, in acres of space, fed the overlapping Del Piero to finish beyond the advancing Lehmann to confirm Italy’s first World Cup Final in twelve years – a chance to avenge the haunting Roberto Baggio penalty miss and seal a fourth star onto their badge – cueing scenes of Italian ecstasy in the process.
The Azzurri would indeed go onto become World Champions in Berlin courtesy of a shootout victory over France, in a game largely remembered for a notorious Zinedine Zidane headbutt, but it was this resplendent, tactical display that was so pivotal on their path to glory.