EURO 2000 WILL be remembered by most as the first time reigning World Cup winners captured the top prize in Europe but the Italy came seconds away from upsetting the victorious French.
12 years ago and Italy, led by Dino Zoff, contained history’s slickest back four as captain Paolo Maldini was joined by Fabio Cannovaro, Alessandro Nesta and Demetrio Albertini.
The Azzurri also boated the attacking talents of Vincenzo Montella, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti but it mattered not a jot to Zoff as they set out to defend.
It could be argued that the art of the Catenaccio was never truly lost in Serie A but the Italian defence, protecting the rangy Francesco Toldo in goal, revived it.
It was a thing of beauty too. Two goals were conceded in three group matches but Maldini and his hard-tackling cohorts soon perfected their black magic.
Romania, with an ageing Gheorghe Hagi and a naïve Adrian Mutu, were no match for the steely Italians in a quarter-final match in Brussels but a serious threat, in the form of a rampaging Dutch side, awaited in Amsterdam.
What followed, on 29 June, was as beautiful as witnessing a low-riding Lamborghini beached on an ugly speed-bump.
Maldini marshalled a backline that tugged jerseys, followed through on ball-winning challenges, time-wasted, hoofed balls into Row Z, got in an extra roll upon receiving a nudge, and crawled on hands and knees to stop attempts on goal.
Zoff’s men deflated the orange-clad crowd and neutralised the dangers posed by Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, among others, for 120 minutes as the tie ended 0-0.
It was time for Toldo, who had earlier stopped Frank de Boer from the penalty spot, to fulfil his end of the bargain. He did not disappoint in the shoot-out, saving from de Boer again and Paul Bosvelt.
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So close to glory
World champions France loomed in the final at Feijernoord Stadium, Rotterdam.
Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane had been the chief architects of the French march to the decider. They were a battle-hardened group after narrowly scraping by talented Spanish and Portuguese sides.
The defence was tested early on but remained resolute. Marco Delvecchio made things even better when he side-footed home after 55 minutes.
Toldo was in fine form but Maldini and Nesta, in particular, were immense. Italy held out for 94 minutes before Sylvan Wiltord stole in at the death to crash a shot into the roof of the net.
The Azzurri looked deflated and could not regain their composure. The final dagger was plunged when David Trezeguet slammed home an extra-time winner.
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Italy had not conceded a goal for 322 minutes – from Henrik Larsson’s goal for Sweden in the final group to the dying seconds of the final.
One more minute and they would have been heroes but it was not to be.
The core of the Italian team returned in 2006, however, to thwart France and Zidane in the World Cup final.