It wouldn’t be an understatement to say Italy didn’t take elimination from the 2002 World Cup well.
Facing co-hosts South Korea in the last 16, the Azzurri were on the wrong end of a controversial penalty decision, had Francesco Totti sent off for a debatable ‘dive’ and saw a Golden Goal chalked off by referee Bryan Moreno. Perugia striker Ahn Jung-hwan then rubbed salt in those gaping wounds by notching a 117th-minute winner.
The TV commentator Bruno Pizzul termed it a “robbery”. Franco Frattini, Italy’s Minister for Public Offices, blasted Moreno as a “disgrace” and “absolutely scandalous”. Perugia owner Luciano Gaucci vowed that Ahn would never set foot in Perugia again… and promptly kept his promise by sacking him.
“I consider this behaviour to be not only a wound to my national pride, but also an offensive act against a country which opened its doors to him two years ago,” Gaucci fumed, keeping everything in perspective. “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who ruined Italian football.”
They might not all have reacted as tempestuously as Gaucci, but even reasonable Italians were left extremely frustrated by the nature of their team’s exit in 2002. As it turned out, the worst was yet to come.
With the contentious events of the summer still hanging over them, Italy made a shaky start to Euro 2004 qualifying. But by the end of the campaign they were sitting pretty at the top of their group and looking ahead to the tournament in Portugal, where they were determined to make up for their premature exit in 2002.
Giovanni Trapattoni remained in charge of the Azzurri and the Euro 2004 squad was similar to the one that travelled to Japan and South Korea. The most notable absentee was Paolo Maldini, who was still collecting Champions League winner’s medals at Milan but had now retired from international duty.
The draw appeared to have been reasonably kind to Italy, who would face Denmark, Sweden and Bulgaria in the group stage. The two Scandinavian sides had both reached the last 16 of the previous World Cup, but Italy were still seen as clear favourites to progress to the quarter-finals in top spot.
Yet Trapattoni’s team hit the ground trudging. They created little of note in a 0-0 draw with Denmark in their opening game and were fortunate to hang on for a point. Only a fine save from Gianluigi Buffon denied Jon-Dahl Tomasson a late winner, while Italy averaged just 45 per cent possession. This wasn’t the start they’d envisaged.
The pressure was well and truly on by the time Italy next took to the field. Sweden had demonstrated their credentials with a 5-0 thrashing of Bulgaria, with an attack consisting of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson proving far too strong for their opponents. Then, as the second round of fixtures got under way, Denmark strolled past Bulgaria to move on to four points.
In the circumstances, Italy knew they couldn’t afford to lose to Sweden, who had the chance to book their spot in the quarter-finals with victory over the Azzurri. Trapattoni reformatted his side for this must-not-lose encounter, switching from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 4-3-1-2, with Antonio Cassano deployed behind Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero in a bid to give Italy more teeth in attack. Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso also came into the midfield, with the injured Cristiano Zanetti dropping out.
Trapattoni’s tinkering looked to have done the trick, as Italy dominated the first half and took the lead through Cassano. Vieri and Del Piero spurned presentable chances to put the result beyond doubt and Italy were made to pay late on. Having turned down several opportunities to clear their lines from a Sweden corner, Ibrahimovic scored with a delicious flick which looped over the head of Vieri on the goal line.
Italy were up against it, but most pundits still fancied their chances of getting through. Victory over Bulgaria in their final game would move them on to five points. Sweden and Denmark currently had four apiece, so a win for either would see Italy advance to the quarter-finals as Group C runners-up.
Things would get a little more complicated if Sweden and Denmark shared the spoils, but Italy still seemed to be in a decent position. A 0-0 or 1-1 would still be enough as long as Italy did their bit against Bulgaria, but since head-to-head took preference over a goal difference, a high-scoring draw – 2-2 and above – would in effect make the outcome of the Azzurri’s final match redundant.
Italy smelt controversy almost as soon as their match with Sweden had finished, but the Danes were having none of it.
“That’s ridiculous,” Denmark manager Morten Olsen said when the potential for a fix was put to him. “Don’t speak about that. We are honest people. We are going out to win the game and that’s all. Italy can speak about these things but not Denmark and Sweden. We are going honestly for a result.”
Lars Lagerback, Sweden’s assistant boss, also rebuffed claims from suspicious Italian inquisitors, this time with a reference to one of their own.
“Machiavelli might have been Italian and Italians might like to think in a Machiavellian way, but it would not be possible to play for a 2-2 draw against Denmark and I don’t think it will end 2-2 – that is a very unusual result.”
He was certainly right on that last point. Of the 30 other games at Euro 2004, only one ended 2-2 after 90 minutes. Two of the 64 games at the 2002 World Cup finished two apiece. None in 31 at Euro 2000 did.
There was a danger in all this that Italy would take their eye off the ball. After all, they still had to beat Bulgaria for the outcome of Denmark vs Sweden to matter at all. A sluggish start against the Group C whipping boys confirmed the suspicion that their focus had drifted. Italian ducks were not in a row, and Martin Petrov scattered them further by giving Bulgaria the lead from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time.
In the other half of Group C’s conclusion, Denmark held the advantage at the interval thanks to a goal from Tomasson, who as an employee of Milan was hoping to avoid the fate of Ahn Jung-hwan. Sweden were back level soon after the restart, though, as Larsson converted a penalty to set Italian nerves jangling, even after Simone Perrotta had made it 1-1 in Guimaraes. Tomasson edged Denmark back ahead in the 66th minute, as Italy piled the pressure on against the spirited Bulgarians.
The Italians eventually made the breakthrough in the fourth minute of stoppage time, long after their knocking on the door had turned to banging. Cassano fired home after a lovely dummy from Pirlo, but the celebrations were subdued and the final whistle was followed by tears rather than cheers. Over in Porto, Mattias Jonson had struck a late equaliser. Denmark and Sweden had drawn 2-2.
Many Italians began spitting feathers instantly. To them this was a textbook example of a biscotto (literally “biscuit”), the term ascribed to arranged and mutually beneficial scorelines. The sight of Denmark goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen lifting up Sweden striker – and Aston Villa colleague – Marcus Allbäck after the game did little to assuage their doubts.
“We got as many points as the players who are blonde and beautiful. But we are darker and not as beautiful,” lamented Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani in an outburst that arguably raised more questions than he intended.
Franco Carraro, the president of the Italian football federation alleged a fix. Buffon, not for the last time, refused to blame his own team’s shortcomings and pointed the finger elsewhere.
“Someone should be ashamed and it’s not us,” he huffed. “I’m very bitter, I didn’t believe this would happen with people who are proud of their spirit of fair play.”
Yet unlike in 2002, when there were legitimate grievances at the nature of the team’s elimination, Italy had no grounds for complaint here. Denmark and Sweden traded 31 shots and 31 fouls. Robust challenges flew in. Sweden hit the post and forced some excellent saves from Sorensen. Denmark dominated the first half and could easily have been further ahead at the interval. If this was a fix, it was a poorly executed one.
On this occasion, Italy had to look at themselves. An unambitious display in their opening game against Denmark set the tone. They failed to win two of their three matches and only narrowly saw off a Bulgaria team that Sweden had thrashed 5-0. Their squad was talented, but Trapattoni had failed to extract the best from it.
“2-2: Congratulations Italy, you tipped correctly,” read the headline of a Swedish newspaper the day after. Ahn Jung-hwan could be forgiven for raising a smile.