Wednesday 14 July 2021

Forza Azzurri: From Rotterdam to Wembley

Even after Bukayo Saka buried his head in his shirt, I didn't realize what had happened.  Gianluigi Donnarumma picked himself up and walked away slowly, as if nothing had. It was only when I saw Roberto Mancini embrace his staff that the enormity of the moment started to wash over me.  

Somewhere, somehow, in the eternity between Jorginho's and Saka's miss, I had lost count of Italy's most important penalty shoot-out since the World Cup Final of July 9, 2006.

The one count I had faithfully kept, throughout the tournament, throughout the Final, only stopping just before the liquid images of Italy's Wembley triumph started to unfold on television before me, was of twenty-one years.  More than two decades had passed since my most excruciating football memory: Italy's Euro2000 Final defeat to France.

Since then, I have witnessed the thespian range of Italy in South Korea (2002), Milan in Deportivo (2004), Milan in Istanbul (2005), Italy in Kyiv (2012), and Italy in Milan failing to qualify for the World Cup (2018), but none of these farces and tragedies have the jabbing edges that Euro2000 Final has, those barbed images of abysmal dejection. 

It was how Italy lost.  They could sniff the trophy's silver.  Journalists in the press box were practically proofreading their final copy.  The Italy bench was almost spilling onto the field in anticipation.

What happened with less than ninety seconds remaining was unimaginable given how Italy had defended that tournament, and how they had edited out Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry from the Final's storyline.  But deep in injury time, Fabien Barethez's long clearance eluded Fabio Cannavaro, whose desperate attempt to head the ball away only helped it onto the path of Sylvain Wiltord, who snuck the ball under Francesco Toldo from an angle.

That was the moment Italy lost.  David Trezeguet's golden goal in extra time had the inevitability of the next day's tired headlines.  Best team of the tournament won! French football reigns supreme!

Del Piero (left) contemplates defeat in Euro2000
While Alessandro Del Piero (who missed two convertible
chances) stared off into that unredemptive Rotterdam night of July 2, 2000, the silver medal an albatross around his neck, I knew that seeing Italy win the European Championship and right this wrong would become an obsession of mine in the following years.

And during those years, I have witnessed Zlatan Ibrahimovic's backheel at Euro2004, a penalty shootout loss that started Spain's domination of international football (Euro2008 quarter-final) and a 4-0 pasting that marked its pause (Euro2012 Final), and, yes, that Simone Zaza penalty against Germany in Euro2016.  Yes, Italy won the World Cup in 2006, but that was to cancel out my pain of 1990 and 1994; the European Championship was the precise antidote for 2000.

Italy's triumph on Sunday at Wembley needed to shift the trauma of heartbreaking defeats to the genre's most brilliant method actor: England.  

That is the story of possible redemption that I told myself before and on Sunday, but reading the previews leading up to the Final, little space was granted to any Italian perspective in the English media.  Talking about 55 joyless years is a story that subsumes all, even for the neutral, and yet moving that colossal narrative rock only slightly reveals teeming particularities, nuances, missed narratives of big men like Gianluca Vialli and his battle with cancer, of big football countries like Italy standing on the cusp of becoming even bigger. 

I am one of those who believes that winning the European Championship is a higher achievement than winning the World Cup.  Not more significant in national memory, but more of a rigorous test of credentials.  The fact that the last four World Cups have been won by European nations only strengthens my conviction.  

But alongside the football question, Italy also needed to answer the spiritual one, the one that lingered for more than twenty years.  They did.  Nothing will ever erase the pain of that night in Rotterdam, but this helps. A lot.

Forza Azzurri!

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