History of the World Cup: 2006 – Italy does it again

Andrea Pirlo of Italy takes the ball away from Miroslav Klose of Germany during the 2006 World Cup semifinals. (Martin Rose/Getty)

Italy quietly went about its business through the opening rounds before beating hosts Germany in the semifinals and France in the final via penalty shootout.


Germany welcomed the soccer world with open arms in 2006, staging the World Cup for the second time in the tournament’s long and illustrious history.

West Germany previously hosted soccer’s showcase event in 1974 when the dark spectre of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics was still fresh in the collective conscience, resulting in a tension-filled tournament.

Thirty-two years removed, it was a unified Germany that won universal praise and plaudits from the international community for its graciousness and hospitality during the 2006 World Cup. The competition’s official motto, “a time to make friends,” proved to be more than just a slogan – Germany created a party-like atmosphere never before seen at the World Cup by setting up fan parks and street festivals all across the country where fans could congregate and watch the games together.

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The top two teams from each of the eight groups advanced to the knockout round.


Italy and France faced off in the final on July 9 in a rematch of the Euro 2000 final when David Trezeguet scored a golden goal to lift Les Bleus to victory. Trezeguet would again play a prominent role in the proceedings in Berlin, but the outcome would be much different for the French.

France took the lead in the seventh minute from the penalty spot after Florent Malouda went down inside the Italian box. Zinedine Zidane stepped up to the spot and clipped his effort off the crossbar and just over the goal-line.

The Italians were staggered, but they slowly gained control of the match and netted the equalizer in the 19th minute. Andrea Pirlo delivered an exquisite corner kick into the middle of the penalty area and Marco Materazzi majestically rose through the air to drive a powerful header past sprawling French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

The French pinned the Italians back in their end of the field at the start of extra time. While France valiantly pressed forward in attack, Italy sat back in defence and soaked up the pressure. And then, at the 110-minute mark, one of the most talked about and controversial moments in World Cup history unfolded before the stunned Berlin crowd: Zidane, inexplicably, head-butted Materazzi after an exchange of words.

What did Materazzi say to set off the usually sedate Zidane? Speculation would run rampant in the ensuing months, and to this day nobody knows for sure. What is certain is that the career of one of the game’s all-time greats was over in an instant of pure madness: the Argentine referee showed Zidane a red card, and France was reduced to 10 men.

Neither team did much attacking in the final 10 minutes, as they seemed content to decide the matter via penalty shootout. The two sides traded early goals, with Pirlo scoring for the Italians, and Sylvain Wiltord replying for the French. Materazzi strode up to the spot and drove a powerful shot past a diving Barthez to put Italy in front 2-1.

Then came another turning point – Trezeguet blasted his shot off the crossbar (he was the only French player to miss in the shootout) and the Italians suddenly had the upper hand. Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Del Piero converted for Italy, while Eric Abidal and Willy Sagnol tallied to keep France alive.

Sitting on a 4-3 lead, Italy now had a chance to kill off the French and exact revenge for their capitulation in the Euro 2000 final. Fabio Grosso, the unheralded Palermo defender who proved to be the hero against Germany in the semifinals, calmly walked up to the spot and placed a perfect shot that flew by Barthez and bulged the back of the net.

“Campioni del mondo!”(Champions of the world!) Italian TV commentator Fabio Caressa screamed at the top of his lungs over and over again as Grosso was mobbed by his teammates.


Number of participating teams: 32
Top scorer: Germany’s Miroslav Klose (5 goals)
Number of games: 64
Total goals scored: 147
Average goals per game: 2.30
Highest scoring game: Germany’s 4-2 win over Costa Rica on June 9; Argentina’s 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro on June 16
Total attendance: 3,352,605
Average attendance: 52,384


Fabio Cannavaro. Unbelievably, Zinedine Zidane was awarded the Golden Ball trophy as the tournament MVP, thanks to the sentimental vote. Instead, the honour should have gone to Cannavaro, the lynchpin of an Italian defence that only conceded two goals. Italy’s captain was, undeniably, the best player in the competition – a fact confirmed when he won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA world player of the year award later that year.


Italy’s 2-0 extra-time victory over Germany in the semifinals. Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion was a cauldron of noise and intimidation. The boisterous German crowd whistled and jeered every touch of the ball made by Italy, but Fabio Grosso scored the winning goal in the 119th minute to propel the Italians past Germany in one of the most dramatic and thrilling games ever at the World Cup.


Italy’s victory in Germany was a testament to the value of teamwork, the Azzurri’s success achieved through hard work and unwavering commitment. Although the Italian side was loaded with world-class attacking stars, no player on the squad scored more than two goals.

Instead, it was a World Cup won on the strength of balanced scoring (10 different players found the back of the net for Italy), midfield creativity (with Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings) and an impenetrable defence anchored by the incomparable Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon.


That the Italians even made it to the final against France spoke to the quality of their character, especially in light of what was going on back home at the time A sports tribunal in Rome was investigating allegations of a match-fixing scheme in Serie A (Italy’s first division) during the previous two seasons and was expected to hand down a decision days after the World Cup final.

The pall of the match-fixing scandal had been hanging over the Italian national team for months, with four of Italy’s most storied Italian clubs – Juventus, Fiorentina, Lazio and AC Milan – facing relegation to the lower leagues. Many of the Italians players’ pro careers were teetering in the balance.

At the same time Gianluca Pessotto, a former national team member, was lying on his deathbed in an Italian hospital during the tournament. Pessotto jumped (some say he fell) from the roof of the Juventus headquarters in Turin with a rosary clutched in one hand, leading many to believe that his fall from the roof was a suicide attempt. But neither the scandal nor the thought of a former colleague desperately fighting for his life could distract the Azzurri from beating Les Bleus in the final.


Germany’s impeccable hosting of the World Cup made up for the rather dubious manner in which they won the right to stage the competition in the first place.

The vote to choose the hosts of the 2006 tournament was held six years earlier in Zurich, and South Africa had the inside track as the favourite. Oceania delegate Charles Dempsey abstained from voting at the last minute, citing “intolerable pressure” – it’s believed he was offered a bribe to vote for Germany.

In the end, Germany won the final vote 12-11. Had Dempsey cast his ballot for South Africa, as many believed he would, the vote would have resulted in a 12-12 tie. FIFA president Sepp Blatter would then have had to cast the deciding ballot, and he had already made known his desire to see South Africa stage the World Cup.


As much as the 2006 World Cup bore witness to some fantastic soccer, it will also be remembered as an ill-tempered affair, as referees handed out 345 yellow cards and 28 red cards, both new records.

Russian referee Valentin Ivanov brandished 16 yellow cards (tying a tournament record) and four red cards (a new record) in a second-round match between Portugal and the Netherlands. The game has since earned the moniker “The Battle of Nuremberg.”

Debate raged over who was responsible for the inordinate number of cautions. Players blamed FIFA President Sepp Blatter, claiming he took discretion away from referees and bound them to a rigid interpretation of the rulebook. Blatter pointed the finger at the players, arguing too many of them appealed to the referees to have their opponents booked.


English referee Graham Poll mistakenly issued Croatian defender Josip Simunic three yellow cards (Poll forgot to send him back the locker-room after the second yellow) in a first-round match against Australia that ended in a tie.


For the first time since the 1982 World Cup in Spain, all six soccer confederations were represented at the tournament. All four semi-finalists were from Europe (Italy, Germany, France and Portugal), resulting in only the fourth all-European final four in World Cup history (1934, 1966 and 1982).


The 2006 World Cup was a tournament of many firsts, including the first where the defending champions were no longer granted automatic qualification – Brazil had to qualify like everybody else.


Eight nations qualified for the finals for the first time: Angola, Czech Republic, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine and Serbia & Montenegro. The Czech Republic, Serbia & Montenegro and Ukraine were making their first appearance as independent nations, having previously participated as part of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, respectively.


It was Argentina’s 6-0 win over the Serbs that provided the highlight of the first round. The South Americans put together a brilliant sequence that featured 24 consecutive passes, culminating with Esteban Cambiasso’s goal in the 31st minute that gave Argentina a 2-0 lead.


History was made in Brazil’s 3-0 win over Ghana in the second round, as Ronaldo moved past legendary German Gerd Muller as the tournament’s all-time leading scorer with his 15th career World Cup goal.


• Since 1982 when the World Cup was increased to 24 teams from 16, only seven different nations have appeared in the tournament final: Germany (five times), Brazil (three), Italy (three), Argentina (three), France (two), and Netherlands and Spain (one)

• Only four players have scored in two World Cup final matches: Vava of Brazil (1958 and 1962), Pele of Brazil (1958 and 1970), West Germany’s Paul Breitner (1974 and 1982) and France’s Zinedine Zidane (1998 and 2006).

• Marcus Allback’s goal for Sweden in a 2-2 draw with England in the first round was the 2000th goal scored in World Cup history.

• Germany’s Miroslav Klose claimed the Golden Shoe award as the competition’s top scorer with five goals. It was the lowest number of goals scored by a tournament’s top goal-scorer since six players tied with four goals each in 1962 in Chile.

• Allesandro Del Piero’s goal in the 121st minute in Italy’s 2-0 win over Germany in the semifinals was the latest goal scored in a World Cup game.

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