You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime
(“Lose Yourself” – Eminem)
We all like to think that success in life is a product of hard work and study – and in most cases, both of these attributes definitely help. But as we all also know, sometimes you need a dash of luck, and that can mean just being in the right place at the right time. The key is taking full advantage of that moment when it arises and milking it to its full potential. In sports, more maybe than any other profession, success can come down to a few key moments and an everlasting legacy can be created in the spur of a moment.
Succeeding at football is of course fraught with difficulties bearing in mind how many harbour the dream. And within the football world, one of the hardest positions to break into has to be the Italian national goalkeeper. Italy is famous for producing a fine line of world-quality keepers – think Stefano Tacconi, Walter Zenga, Sebastino Rossi and the indomitable Dino Zoff. Zoff kept goal for the Azzurri over the course of 15 years, earning 112 caps while rarely missing a game. He also had his moments of glory at European Championships, making his senior debut in the 1968 championship and ending up as “goalkeeper of the tournament” as Italy triumphed in Rome. In the 1980 championship, when it again returned to home soil, he kept three clean sheets and again earned “goalkeeper of the tournament”. Zoff’s final appearance was also a European Championship qualifier – a 2-0 defeat in Sweden on May 29 1983.
In 1998, Dino Zoff took the role of Italy manager, placing him in charge of qualification for the upcoming 2000 European championship being held in Belgium and the Netherlands. Italy were placed into a qualification group alongside Denmark, Switzerland, Wales and Belarus. 15 points from 8 games saw them narrowly top the group, one point ahead of both Denmark and Switzerland, therefore earning automatic qualification. The goalkeeper for the qualifying games was none other than a young Gianluigi Buffon – a man who would arguably go on to be Italy’s greatest goalkeeper of all time.
Although young, Buffon had already stacked up impressive credentials. He represented Italy at all levels from under-16 to under-21. The 1993 UEFA European Under-16 Championships saw Buffon save two penalties and even score one in a quarter-final shootout over Spain before saving another three penalties in the semi-final shootout. Performances such as this saw him earn his first international cap in October 1997 at the age of just 19 years and 9 months, which lead to him being taken as backup goalkeeper to the 1998 World Cup finals. Qualification for the 2000 Euros had then seen him promoted to the number one spot – a position it turned out he kept for a very long period thereafter – in fact, 176 times until retirement in 2018.
In preparation for Euro 2000, Italy played some warm-up friendlies – one of which was against Norway just eight days ahead of the opening game. An in-swinging cross was met by John Carew who powered one of his trademark headers into the corner away from Buffon’s outstretched hand. As Norway celebrated, the cameras focused in on Buffon lying prone in the goal, clutching his hand above him. In trying to stop the header, he had collided his hand with the post and broken it. Italy had lost their first choice keeper and would need to turn to their number two to take his place. That number two should have been Angelo Peruzzi, but he had pulled out of the Azzurri squad in protest of being beneath Buffon. So now they would have to look to their third string understudy.
Francesco Toldo had made a name for himself as the Fiorentina goalkeeper since joining them in 1993. During that time, he had helped Fiorentina earn promotion to Serie A, while also winning the Coppa Italia twice and reaching the semi-finals of the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1997. He had a reputation for being a penalty-saving specialist and, fittingly, his role model had always been the now Italy coach, Dino Zoff. Up to this point in his career, he had made just 6 appearances for the Azzurri, all back in 1995 and 1996, as he then watched Buffon establish himself. But now perhaps had come Toldo’s dash of luck – he was now in the right place at the right time just eight days ahead of the finals. It would just be a matter of whether he could take full advantage.
The Euro 2000 draw had placed Italy alongside co-hosts Belgium, Sweden and Turkey. On the afternoon of June 11, Italy kicked off their tournament against Turkey – a team that included the prolific Hakan Şükür and who had finished second in qualification just two points behind Germany, having beaten them 1-0 in Bursa, before advancing to the finals on away goals in a play-off against the Republic of Ireland. As Toldo made his first senior start for four years, a 60 yard intended pass from midfield almost beat him – he managed to turn it for a corner, so narrowly avoiding a nightmare start. He settled somewhat for the rest of the first half, which ended goalless. Early in the second half, Antonio Conte opened the scoring for Italy with a close-range overhead kick. But then just nine minutes later, Toldo came out to punch a free-kick and was beaten to it by Okan Buruk – a foot shorter than him – who headed in the equaliser. Luckily for Toldo, Filippo Inzaghi converted a penalty on 70 minutes and Italy came out of their first game with a win. However, it had definitely been a nervy start for Fiorentina’s number one.
Next up for the Azzurri was a trip to Brussels to face hosts Belgium, who had also gained three points in their opener against Sweden. Italy opened the scoring early to silence the home crowd through Francesco Totti and then, in what some might call typical Italian fashion, they absorbed Belgian pressure before grabbing a second goal in the second half. Belgian captain Lorenzo Staelens came close to scoring, but Toldo managed to touch his shot around the post, before then making a fine stop from a Luc Nilis free-kick. The final whistle saw a more confident performance from Toldo, a clean sheet and Italy through to the next phase with two wins.
Last up was Sweden who, needing a win, took the game to Italy. Early on, Magnus Svensson broke into the area but his shot was well saved by Toldo using his feet. Luigi Di Biagio snatched an opener against the run of play and the second half saw more heroics from Toldo as he saved from Anders Andersson at close range. After those first match nerves, Toldo was beginning to grow more and more into the position. However, even he could not stop the equalizer when Henrik Larsson sprung the offside trap and cleverly took it around Toldo before rolling into an empty net. There was no shame in conceding to such an outrageous piece of skill and it was of no consequence anyway as Alessandro Del Piero wrapped up a third successive Italy victory in the 88th minute. Three group games, three wins and only two goals conceded – Italy and Toldo were moving on to the quarter-finals.
The 1994 World Cup had seen the emergence on the global stage of Gheorghe Hagi, the mercurial Romanian talent. While already a known star within Europe thanks to his performances for Steaua Bucharest and Real Madrid, “The Maradona of the Carpathians” really shone during that tournament, guiding an exciting Romania team to the quarter-finals including a magnificent 3-2 victory over Argentina. However, by 2000, Hagi had moved beyond his peak, as had the whole Romanian team, although he always maintained the ability to produce a moment of magic at any time. Romania had finished second in their group to reach a quarter-final clash with Italy, courtesy of a famous 3-2 defeat of Kevin Keegan’s England – a game that Hagi was suspended for and that England had needed a point to qualify. The match appeared to be heading for a draw until the 89th minute, when Phil Neville upended Viorel Moldovan for a penalty. Hagi was the Romanian penalty taker, but in his absence, Ioan Ganea stepped up and became a hero.
Unfortunately the Italy v Romania game would be best remembered for Hagi’s dismissal in the 59th minute, just four minutes after picking up a yellow card. Totti had scored an opener but Hagi had almost equalised in the first half, lobbing Toldo but seeing the ball come back off the post. Inzaghi put Italy 2-0 up at half-time and as Romania fell apart, Hagi butchered Conte to earn a yellow card, which could easily have been red, before then getting a second yellow for a dive. The red card ended up being a sad finale to an amazing international career, as Hagi retired from international football after the tournament, this having been his final match.
A fourth successive win for Italy and still only two goals conceded by Toldo. The third-string keeper was growing into the role and proving once again Italy’s deep strength in this position. But now came Toldo’s first really serious test – a semi-final match-up against the Netherlands in their own Amsterdam stadium. A Netherlands team that had got through the previous round by massacring Yugoslavia 6-1, including a Patrick Kluivert hat-trick. A Netherlands team that had also won all its group stage matches, including beating France 3-2. Two teams that had won all four games to date – someone’s 100% record had to end. Luckily the game lived up to the hype and one of the classic European Championship games was to unfold.
A wall of Oranje awaited the Italians as they stepped out into the Amsterdam ArenA and faced a lusty rendition of the Dutch national anthem. Holland took the game to Italy from the offset, with Dennis Bergkamp orchestrating every move, until a low drive of his beat Toldo but crashed off the post. As Italy grew frustrated at being pinned into their own half, Gianluca Zambrotta brought down Boudewijn Zenden for a yellow card, followed shortly after by a yellow card for Mark Iuliano – two yellow cards in the first 17 minutes. Wave after wave of Netherland’s attacks came, but little that actually troubled Toldo. Then on 34 minutes, Zenden once again beat Zambrotta, who once again brought him down. As if the first half-hour had not been bad enough, Italy were now down to ten men to the enormous pleasure of over 50,000 Dutch fans.
A Holland goal seemed inevitable, and just four minutes later a ball played into Kluivert saw him pulled back by Alessandro Nesta. The referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty and it seemed the breakthrough had finally come. Toldo’s first action was to get himself a yellow card for protesting – before then turning Frank de Boer’s penalty around the post. The penalty specialist had seized his first moment under the spotlight.
And so Italy managed to get into the half-time break still level, despite Holland having all the play, an extra man and a vociferous home support.
A similar pattern emerged in the second half with the Dutch probing and the Italians defending staunchly. Then, on the hour, a ball into Edgar Davids just outside the area saw him control it with his chest and then sweep into the area, before being obviously tripped by Iuliano. Holland had a second chance from the penalty spot and this time responsibility was handed to Kluivert. His shot to the left sent Toldo the wrong way – but came back off the post and was cleared. The Dutch must have been wondering by now what they were going to have to do to score. Even Pele was shown in the crowd holding up two fingers in amazement to a colleague.
The Dutch continued to attack and attack but were repeatedly repelled by a blue wall, rarely penetrating through as far as troubling Toldo. Full-time came and went – then extra time came and went – and still the Italian defence gave a masterclass in catenaccio. The game was going to be decided by penalties.
Italy won the toss to shoot first and Toldo obviously had a psychological advantage over the Dutch in having saved one penalty in normal time. On top of that, the Dutch had to cope with the knowledge that they had already missed two penalties thus far. The question was whether they could put that out of their minds now in front of a stadium full of their supporters. It is usually supposed that goalkeepers have the advantage in penalty shoot-outs – the player is expected to score and so the pressure is all on him. In general, the goalkeeper can only be a hero. And so the experienced Edwin Van der Sar was up against the third-string Toldo.
Di Biagio stepped up first for the Azzurri and placed his penalty sweetly into the top corner. Next up came Frank de Boer – the captain taking responsibility despite having seen his earlier penalty saved by Toldo. His first penalty had been struck to Toldo’s left – this time he chose to go down the middle and Toldo once again saved it. Advantage Italy and now three penalties all missed by the Oranje, with Toldo saving two.
Gianluca Pessotto calmly scored the next Italian penalty before Jaap Stam belted his into the top stands. Holland were experiencing a complete breakdown from the spot. Italian confidence was flowing now and Totti had the nerve to place a Panenka past Van der Sar to put them within touching distance of the final. Kluivert stepped up for his second penalty of the game and this time got it right. Paolo Maldini had the chance to finish things off but saw his kick saved by Van der Sar to give the Dutch a glimmer of hope, providing the next taker Paul Bosvelt could convert. But down went Toldo, glove on ball, and Holland’s misery was over. They had taken six penalties throughout the game and seen Toldo save three, missed two and only converted one. Toldo was swamped by his grateful teammates while the Dutch were left to rue what might have been. Italy were in the final and Dutch manager Frank Rijkaard resigned immediately. Fittingly, Toldo was named Man of the Match.
So with five wins out of five now under their belts, Italy were off to the final, where they would face a strong France team who had triumphed over Spain and Portugal in the knock-out stages. A French team including the likes of Fabien Barthez, Lillian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Youri Djorkaeff, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. The game was to be played in Rotterdam and needless to say after the Dutch semi-final defeat, most of the Rotterdam inhabitants were rooting for the French. The first half was notable for very little and drifted to a goalless half-time. Early in the second half, Zoff brought on Del Piero for Stefano Fiore – a move that would nearly bear fruit.
Just after the substitution, a sublime Totti back-heel started the move that saw Marco Delvecchio opened the scoring for the Azzurri. Suddenly Italy were awake and Del Piero twice had good chances to put the game beyond France, but squandered both. Still, that didn’t look too concerning for Italy as the game entered the third minute of stoppage time – they were almost home and dry. A final attempt by France to get something saw Barthez punt a long, hopeful free-kick into the Italian penalty box. David Trezeguet got a head on it and it broke wide to Sylvain Wiltord, whose shot was on target but lacked power and Toldo seemed to have it covered. But, in seemingly slow-motion, he only got part of his glove to the ball and it trickled agonizingly into the far corner. Toldo held his head in his hands as pandemonium broke out amongst the French, despair amongst the Italians and extra-time with the golden goal rule in place.
The Azzurri were spent and, as Robert Pires commented afterwards, “The Italians were dead, I saw their faces. The right side of their defence was burned”. France surged forward and a Henry follow-up to a Toldo save saw the keeper receive a bloody nose for his troubles. And so it proved as 13 minutes into extra time, Pires reached the byline, pulled the ball back to Trezeguet who slammed it into the top corner. Toldo collapsed to the ground as the French wheeled away in celebration. Allez les bleus.
As the days passed and events cooled, many realized just what a fine competition Toldo had played. The pre-tournament third string keeper had grown in confidence during the schedule and had almost single-handedly dragged Italy through the seismic Holland semi-final. A rare chance had been gifted to him through firstly the fit of pique of Peruzzi and then the broken hand of Buffon – and he had grasped the opportunity. His reward was an inclusion in the Team of the Tournament. He even kept his Azzurri starting spot for the start of the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, although eventually when Buffon returned from injury he once again reclaimed that role. But Toldo’s heroics will always live in Italian hearts – his jersey from the competition hangs proudly in Florence’s Football Museum. After 335 appearances for Fiorentina, he moved on to Inter Milan in the summer of 2001 and enjoyed another 232 starts for them over eight seasons before finally hanging up his gloves in 2009. Unfortunately, he only ever played for the Azzurri 14 more times post-Euro 2000 – his final appearance being in February 2004 against the Czech Republic. But his 28 caps will always be remembered for the Euro 2000 run – and in particular the night when he defied the Dutch in Amsterdam. The opportunity came once in his lifetime – and he did not blow it