Publicly - and, given his inner confidence, probably privately as well - Glenn Hoddle had never doubted England could get the result they needed. Impressive victories in Poland and over Italy in Nantes persuaded others to believe as well and England's task seemed altogether less daunting when Italy's failure to win in Georgia left the coach only a draw away from automatic qualification.
Yet even a point remained a formidable task. Italy had won all 15 previous World Cup ties in Rome and England would be without Alan Shearer.
Until they appeared on the pitch it seemed David Beckham and Gareth Southgate would also be absent too but their "injuries" proved more a Hoddle smokescreen than reality. To be so Machiavellian seemed apt in Italy and England went on to appropriate their hosts' traditional role as well. They defended deep, kept the ball, looked to attack on the counter and were not averse to a bit of gamesmanship.
It needed Tony Adams' experience to hold England together in the early stages but Paolo Maldini then succumbed to an early injury and Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince took control in midfield. As they toyed with the ball, Italy, already struggling with Gianfranco Zola out of form and out of position, lost their discipline.
The Dutch referee, Mario van der Ende, was said to be a lover of pasta (an allegation his figure substantiated) but he was as impartial as Solomon. First he booked Alessandro del Piero for diving over an Adams challenge, then, after Angelo di Livio besmirched his Christian name with a devilish tackle on Sol Campbell, he waved the red.
England seemed bound for France and should have been celebrating a famous victory when Ian Wright rounded the goalkeeper, only to hit a post. England momentarily let their concentration slip and, seconds later, a dangerous cross was drifting towards Christian Vieri. The pounds 12m centre-forward rose to meet it... and headed wide. On the bench Hoddle breathed again before exploding in a jig of joy with his staff as, barely a minute later, the final whistle sounded.
Sadly not all those able to tell their grandchildren, in years to come, "I was there" wished they were at the time. Once again England fans reaped the harvest of their reputation. An Italian police force already vengeful and fearful had been further stirred up by two days of often intimidating and lewd public drunkeness. Their attitude was compounded by poor crowd management and the presence of several thousand English supporters, some with malevolent intent, who had bought tickets through unofficial channels.
The chaos fans experienced below the seating inside the stadium, largely caused by Italian police, was matched by the hostility they encountered in them. A first half pock-marked by hand-to-hand fighting between fans and police, and decorated by a steady stream of missiles thrown between the two sets of fans, was shown around the world.
If, by the end, England's bid to win the World Cup of 1988 seemed on course, their attempt to stage the 2006 tournament did not. That the Italian FA should later be handed the bulk of the blame was little consolation. It was an unforgettable night for English football but one which English football might prefer others to forget.Reuse content