My Love For Italian Football.
Italian football is known for its revolutionary defensive tactics or catenaccio (the chain), which translates to ”door-bolt”. This effectively sums up the tactics, to lock out the opposition. There are endless studies and analysis on the great Italian defences and defenders, and rightly so. The strong and steady defences are certainly the main catalyst for bringing success to the Italians and their football over the years. However, for me personally, it was their forwards who made me scour the then relatively new YouTube database in my early teens circa 2006. But with Youtube still expanding and Sky Sports focusing on the Premiership and La Liga, where did my love for these deadly Italian sharpshooters come from?
EuroGoals was shown weekly on Eurosport, and this is where the affair began. I call it an affair as my Father would always laugh at me when I would talk about how good Italian football was. His reply would always be along the lines of ’maybe 10 years ago, but it’s trash now’. Saturday or Sunday nights we would sit down to watch La Liga together, where Frank Rijkaard was taking Barcelona to the summit of world football. Deep down, although I knew this was amazing football, there was something itching inside me just waiting for the next episode of EuroGoals, to see what crazy stuff them Italians were up too.
Remembering there was no way of me knowing the scores unless I searched for them online, the show literally showed bite-size highlights with no analysis of games from around Europe (Holland, Germany, Italy mainly) and would then show the league tables at the end. That’s all you got. Goals, sendings off, daft celebrations, everything the Italians could do in abundance. Over the 90 minutes, I am sure the quality of football would be nothing that Wenger’s Arsenal were playing in England at a similar time, but it was entertaining for me as a 13-year-old kid.
Bite-size highlights are something used a lot now, which can blur peoples judgement on Football as they feel there is no need to watch full games anymore, with goals available almost instantly on social media platforms. YouTube can also make anyone look good. Maybe this was the point my dad was getting at me for basing my love of football in the likes of Francesco Totti, a player who I was watching smash goals in and not the rest of his game. Perhaps it was the fact he would take me to my junior football, with my long hair and watch me dive and take my top off when I scored that got under his skin, but then came the World Cup in 2006.
FIFA World Cup 2006
Before every World Cup, everyone declares who they fancy winning it, in the weeks preceding the opening game there’s usually a case for pretty much all the 32 teams. The European teams are always up there along with Brazil and Argentina. Italy before the 2006 World Cup was still quite a ridiculous shout. The country was in the midst of one of the biggest scandals in the history of football. Calciopoli was the match-fixing scandal that dragged Italian football, as well as the country itself, through the dirt. Juventus were hit the hardest, with their title stripped and being relegated to Serie B along with Fiorentina and Lazio ( after appeal it would only be Juventus who were relegated.) None of this was decided by the 9th of June the day the World Cup started, it was still all up in the air. With that in mind, many thought, so were the Italians chances of winning the tournament. Regardless of this, I begged my mother to order me the Italian home jersey in time to sit with my father and watch their opening game with Ghana.
Totti had an injury-plagued season leading up to the finals in Germany. His inclusion in the squad was seen as a risk, the squad of 23 players included six strikers. Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Toni, Filippo Inzaghi. Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Totti. Having that many forwards was also seen as a risk, especially given when the defence looked rather thin. Marcello Lippi, however, made his name by rotating and switching defenders, most famously when he took Juventus to the 1996 Champions League final and beat the famous Van Gaal Ajax team of the mid-90s. Lippi’s full-backs on the night won him the game. The relatively unheard duo of Gianluca Pessotto and Moreno Torricelli would be the brightest stars on the night in a team that was full of household names. Lippi was able to make his three subs on attacking players, leaving the tired defence alone for the full 90. In extra time, he swapped the right-back (Torricelli) for the left-back (Pessotto). This allowed the more fatigued Torricelli a break against the freshly subbed on Ajax winger, Nordin Wooter. The two full-backs smothered the Ajax wingers all game, and without their main weapon the Dutch side had no other way of beating Juventus and Lippi won his first Champions League. Despite Juventus reaching the next two Champions League finals after this triumph, it would be Lippi’s first and last winners medal.
This rotation and flexibility were key to the triumph in Germany and throughout Lippi’s success as a coach. In 2006, he put his faith in the very trustworthy centre-halves of Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro. Two of the very best to ever play the game, he was praying neither got injured which would allow Lippi’s other coaching trait to be utilised. A common feature in Lippi’s strategy during his career was to rotate his strikers, bringing them into the starting 11 or sending them into battle as a substitute. All six delivered for their country in Germany.
Vincenzo Iaquinta. (Italy 2-0 Ghana)
Vincenzo Iaquinta was sent on the pitch in the 60th minute of Italy’s opener with Ghana. The Italians are 1-0 up but it is far from plain sailing. In the 76th minute, the hard-tackling centre half Samuel Kuffour, who at the time was playing his football in Italy, crunched the recently introduced Iaquinta. He was initially stretchered off, only ten minutes into his debut World Cup, but in true Italian style, the stretcher meant very little and he was on his feet ready to rejoin the battlefield. Kuffour would be involved heavily again with Iaquinta’s impact on the game. His shockingly short back-pass in the 83rd minute acted as a superb through ball for Iaquinta to pounce on and slot home. 2-0, game over. It was only the first match of the finals, but Iaquinta celebrated like he’d just guaranteed the cup was going back to Italy. Sprinting away mouth open, arms stretched wide, passion pouring out his body as the bench erupts and joins in with him too. The Italians had arrived in Germany, armed with half-a-dozen deadly assassins in front of goal.
Iaquinta played most of his career at Udinese and Juventus, scoring 106 goals over 374 appearances. He had that viciousness in the box and was also big and powerful, and very fast off the mark. Injuries certainly tainted what could have been an even more prolific and successful career. He became, in essence, a super-sub. Despite the injuries, he can still gloat at playing and winning in a World Cup final as he came on for Simone Perrotta in the, you guessed it, 60th minute.
His career would, however, be dragged through the dirt. In 2018 Iaquinta stood trial, along with his father for mafia association. In 2015, during the Aemilia anti-mafia investigation, illegal weapons we’re found at both Iaquinta’s and his father’s houses. Iaquinta was acquitted for the connection to the ’Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful organised crime network which is based in the southern region of Calabria. However, he was found guilty of a firearms offence and at the trial, Iaquinta cried out ”They have ruined my life over nothing, just because I come from Calabria.” His defence was that he had given the guns to his father Giuseppe for safekeeping while he was moving house. Iaquinta Snr would be found guilty for connections to the ’Ndrangheta and was sentenced to 19 years in prison, while his son Vincenzo was sentenced to 2 years for the firearms offences. This trial was in the back end of 2018, at the time it was reported that Vincenzo would be able to appeal the verdict, therefore would more than likely avoid serving time in a cell. However, I’ve tried to find out what happened with the appeals or if there even were any appeals? I can’t find anything, so maybe I should stop talking before someone in Calabria stumbles across this article.
Alberto Gilardino (Italy 1-1 United States).
Alberton Gilardino, gets down on one knee as if he’s preparing to propose to the love of his life. In fact, he’s just elegantly executed a diving header into the back of the Americans net, now he’s playing an imaginary violin. Gilardino was the young hotshot of Italy in the early 2000s and he backed up his title. While at Parma he scored 51 goals in 97 games. In both the 2002/03 and the 03/04 seasons he bagged himself 23 goals, finishing one goal behind the ’Capocannoniere’ winners in both seasons (Shevchenko in 03 and Cristiano Lucarelli in 04). In the U21 European Championships in 2004, Gilardino was the player of the tournament as well as the top scorer, as he helped fire Italy to winning the tournament. Later that summer, the Olympics in Athens would also bring glory to Gilardino and the Italians as they won the bronze medal. Going into the World Cup in Germany, Gilardino was pretty much Italy’s main striker.
It’s Matchday 2 in Group E, Italy versus the USA. It takes the Italians 22 minutes to break the deadlock; Pirlo curls in a deadly cross from a free-kick. Gilardino, who appears to be unmarked, dives through the air to head the ball past Kasey Keller. This was, however, just part of the Italian assassin armoury. Stealth in the box, losing defenders to gain that extra yard, creating a clear path to the ball and then for the ball to the net. Gilardino shows a little more confidence after scoring his first goal at a World Cup than Iaquinta did, as he gracefully trots towards the corner flag to embark on his trademark violin celebration, which would be, as always, performed with a certain charm. The game then took a turn for the worst, with no more charm, no more elegance.
4 minutes after the opening goal, Christian Zaccardo, the Italian defender, hilariously booted an attempted corner clearance into the top corner of his own net. Danielle De Rossi then outrageously elbowed the American striker Brian Mcbride, receiving a straight red and banned until the final, should Italy make it. Lippi hauled off Totti who was playing just behind Gilardino and Luca Toni, throwing on Gennaro Gattuso to make up for De Rossi’s absence, keeping the two strikers on the pitch. The U.S.A wouldn’t take advantage though as they receive 2 red cards themselves after half time. Lippi almost instantly throws Del Piero into the action to take advantage and guarantee Italy’s path to the knockout stage. Iaquinta was added into the mix in the, you guessed it, 60th minute. All 3 strikers missed big chances in the later stages, with the game ended 1-1, implying a valiant defensive display by the Americans. In reality, Italy were not clinical enough and were caught offside 11 times in the 90 minutes. Italy would now need to beat the Czech Republic in the final group game to go through to the knockout stages.
Gilardino was born on July 5th 1982, early in the morning of the World Cup final in Spain, which of course was won by Italy. This time around the semi-finals would fall on the eve of his 24th birthday and he would play a vital part in the win over Germany but we will save that part of the story for later. He had a fantastic career and lived up to the hype around him as a teenager, especially when you take into account his serious car crash in 2001 that could have easily ended all his dreams before they had even started. He was driving his Volkswagon Golf to his sisters home in Treviso, with his siblings in the car when he swerved off the road after a collision with a truck and into the canal. Despite injuries to his back, Gilardino managed to open his door and pull both of his sisters to safety before the car sank.
Gilardino can look back on what was a pretty much complete career in terms of trophies. Winning the Champions League with AC Milan, however, he expressed his discontent after the final as he was only used a late substitute. He never really got firing for Milan in Europe, but was still prolific on home soil in the Serie A. At the end of his time in Milan he had 36 goals in 96 appearances. Fiorentina would be his next stop and he carried on scoring. In 2009, a brace against AS Roma took his tally to 100 goals in the previous 6 years. Only Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and his international teammate Toni had scored more than him in Europe during that time period. He would finally find form in the Champions League in the 09/10 season with Fiorentina finishing top of their group, all thanks to a 93rd-minute winner against Liverpool at Anfield from Gilardino. It is this goal that he claims was the most important of a prolific and major trophy-laden career.
Filippo ”Pippo” Inzaghi (Czech Republic 0-2 Italy).
Heading into the final group game and after the dismal display against the United States, Italy needed a result against a tricky Czech Republic side. After Ghana had beaten the Czechs on Matchday 2, this game was, in essence, a play-off. For Italy, a draw was enough to see them through, but when Nesta went off injured the Italians worst fear had come true. Marco Materazzi was put on to replace him. Lippi was surely hoping it would only be for this game, and that Nesta would make a full recovery in time for the knockouts. They needed to make them first. This article is focusing on the forwards of this Italian triumph but we all know what impact Materazzi had on helping his nation to glory in Germany that year. It started nine minutes after he entered the field. Climbing high above all the defenders Marco Materazzi powerfully headed down a Francesco Totti corner into the net. The Czechs were all but beaten by half time when they were reduced to 10 men. In the second half, on the 60th minute, Lippi turned to his bench, giving Filippo Inzaghi the nod.
Inzaghi came on and instantly conjured up a chance for himself, thanks to his trademark excellently timed runs that would often break the defences offside trap. Not often enough for Sir Alex Ferguson however who once described Inzaghi as being ‘born offside’. His first chance, a free header from 6 yards, out was somehow missed. In the 87th minute, running in on goal, from just inside the Czech’s half, everyone watching was waiting for the flag to go up but on this occasion, it didn’t. Inzaghi bore down on goal with only Petr Cech to beat. He tilted his body one way then the other, dislodging Cech’s balance. Then, Inzaghi gracefully rounded the keeper and sloted the ball into the open net. This goal made Inzaghi the oldest player to have scored for Italy in a World Cup. He then raced to the corner flag arms stretched and screaming with joy and tears in the eyes. Italy were heading through to the knockout stages as Group E winners.
Inzaghi was born in Piacenza in the north of Italy, singing for his hometown club in 1991. After a couple of seasons on loan at AlbinoLeffe and Hellas Verona, it was in the 1994/95 campaign in which his career really took off. He won Serie B, which would earn him a big move to Parma. However, his debut season would not go as planned, as Pippo could only manage 2 goals in 15 appearances. One of these goals was against Piacenza, the first time we would see Pippo cry after scoring, albeit not this time with overflowing joy like the others. Inzaghi then signed for Atalanta and had a much more productive season in the box. Receiving the ‘capocannoniere’ with 24 goals, scoring against every team in the league that season, earning him the Serie A young player of the year for the 1996-97 season. Juventus would swoop in and sign Inzaghi the following year, making them his 6th club in 7 years and his first encounter with Marcelo Lippi. Despite not winning the Champions League with Juventus (they lost the final vs Real Madrid) he became the first person in history to score two hat-tricks in the competition. He managed 89 goals in 165 games for Juventus, but was seeing less and less of the pitch thanks to the signing of David Trezeguet.
Johan Cruyff once said “Look, actually he can’t play football at all. He’s just always in the right position.” When Inzaghi made the move to AC Milan he started to win the trophies that his goal tally deserved. After the early seasons he spent with a knee injury, Pippo and Shevchenko created a deadly partnership. In the 2002/03 season, Inzaghi would finally win a Champions League final, beating his former team Juventus on penalties. During that campaign, he managed another hat-trick in the competition, making history yet again.
Inzaghi would once again be brought to tears on the pitch after his brace against Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2006/07. His two goals sank Liverpool and got revenge for what had occurred in Istanbul a few years earlier. Adriano Galliani, Milan’s chief executive at the time remembers visiting the last training session before this final. ‘…Pippo Inzaghi, our centre forward, was completely out of sync – he was barely able to trap the ball. We had another strong centre forward, Alberto Gilardino.’ Galliani, who was by Ancelotti’s side at this moment asked him why Ancelotti was leaning towards starting Inzaghi in the final and not the sharp-looking Gilardino. Ancelotti replied with “Inzaghi is a strange animal. Maybe tomorrow will be his night.” It sure was.
He ended his career with two Champions Leagues and three Serie A titles with two different clubs and 288 career goals. 70 of which came in European competitions – only Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul have more. Not bad for a man who used to provide laughter in training from his teammates at his lack of technique and basic skill. Players have gone on record as saying he was so hard to play against as he seemed to be so clueless, they would always try playing him offside, which seemed so easy due to his lack of movement and apparent lack of spacial awareness. However, this would be when Pippo came alive when his opponents switched off. A fantastic goalscorer, who deserves respect for his ability to score goals. T|he fact that is all he could do, quite frankly, proves that sometimes that’s all you need.
Italy had made it through the group stages of the World Cup, their top place finish was rewarded with a tie against Australia. With three games to play before the World Cup Final, Italy had three strikers waiting to make their mark on the tournament. With the match-fixing scandal still looming over the team, find out what impact Luca Toni, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero would have on Italy’s chances of lifting the World Cup. In the coming weeks I’ll continue this fantastic story on the great Italian strikers that won the World Cup in 2006 and why I love them.