Italians find time for poignant dedication to ailing compatriot

Lippi salutes the playmaker who came good and the marksman who hit the jackpot at last
Click to follow
The Independent Football

At the end, it was almost restrained. For a Latin side suddenly projected to the cusp of greatness again after a too-lengthy hiatus, it was certainly subdued. There were a few embraces, inev-itably, but here late on Friday evening this was more a time for reflections on matters elsewhere.

Italy's captain, Fabio Canna-varo, and the assistant coach, Ciro Ferrara, unfurled a banner on the field reading Pessottino - we are with you, a declaration of support for their former Juventus team-mate Gianluca Pessotto, whose apparent attempted suicide has brought bemusement to a nation already transfixed by the current match-fixing trial. Pessotto is in hospital following his fall from a high window at the club's headquarters. He was allegedly clutching a rosary.

It was a night when such strong undercurrents of emotion could have disrupted Italy's almost surreptitious progress through this tournament, one in which they have conceded just one goal, and that a grotesque own goal in the draw with the United States. Yet it almost empowered them to launch to within a game of the final.

Some game that will be at Dortmund, though you suspect the preference of Marcello Lippi's men might always have been a semi-final with Germany rather than Argentina, notwithstanding the advantages always maintained by the hosts.

This Italian side fairly shimmer with lustre in all areas; from the hugely influential Francesco Totti, probably the best creator other than Ronaldinho, to the powerful, driving presence of Gennaro Gattuso, the former Rangers man, who is all tattoos and tenacity. What will trouble Germany is that this has been a team performance, a squad job, in which all manner of adversity, particularly injury, has been overcome. Remarkably, every outfield player has made a contribution. Their successful deploy-ment is a tribute to the astute Lippi, who returned Totti, scorer of the last-minute penalty as a substitute which secured a 1-0 win for the Azzurri in their last-16 match against Australia, to his starting line-up behind the lone striker Luca Toni.

Totti had arrived here with a broken ankle repaired and a nation waiting on bulletins, just as England had of Wayne Rooney, but also with a reputation sullied by his dismissal four years ago when Italy lost ignominiously to the joint hosts, South Korea. He was sent home in more disgrace from the last European Championships, for spitting at an opponent, but has undergone a renaissance in attitude. His abilities were never in question.

Italy will approach their semi-final with positive forces harnessed, and believing, as Lippi says, "that anything is possible". Is there a more redoubtable rearguard here than Italy's tough and tenacious blue cordon? Gianluca Zambrotta epitomises their obdurate refusal to yield to the opposition strikers, even those with the prowess of Andriy Shevchenko, who can begin to contemplate a new career in west London; yet here the Juventus man also unleashed a savage early opener from 25 yards which unsettled Ukraine, for whom you always suspected this was a round too far. He also helped complete the destruction of Oleg Blokhin's team with a thrilling run and low cross, which provided Toni with the second of his goals.

It was not exactly the unblock-ing of a dam for Toni, the Fior-entina forward whose 31 goals in Serie A last season made him the first man to break the 30-goal barrier in over 40 years. He had failed to score in Italy's last six matches, but the fact that rains had suddenly arrived on this desert plain was a mighty relief for the Toni-come-lately, who had thrust himself on to the world stage late in his career.

Someone mentioned comparisons with Paolo Rossi, although the image of Salvatore "Toto" Schillaci, who emerged in 1990, springs more readily to mind. "I really needed to get on the scoresheet," said Toni. "I was just about the only striker in the team who hadn't scored yet." Indeed. Italy's nine goals at these finals have come from eight different players.

Toni added: "I have been a little affected by the criticism I've received. I dedicate these two goals to all those who kept faith in me even when things didn't seem to be going too well."

The coach, Lippi, had never doubted that Toni, whom he omitted from his side for the final group game against the Czech Republic, would rediscover his touch. "He's scored so many goals in the past three seasons that there was no way he wasn't going to get on target at this tournament," Lippi said.

"I'm really very pleased for him and he deserved it. I told him before the game, 'You are going to get one and then the others will come once you have broken through'."

Italy have broken through, too, closing on a final which the nation last contested 12 years ago. They may yet surprise us all.

Comments