The FIFA World Cup, despite continuous scandals, will continue to be the most important and prized tournament for any footballer. A win in the 7th match (4th, 5th or 6th in some of the earlier formats) is the fruition of the dreams of teammates who have worked for 2 or more years in the midst of arduous club commitments. The players who are involved in that 7th match usually are the players who play for the biggest of clubs that challenge for titles on multiple fronts. It is physically and mentally demanding to give that extra effort to win the Coupe de Monde. It is also the stage where the greatest of players make their name. Who can forget Pele’s pass in the heat of Mexico City which became the Coup de Grâce for possibly the greatest ever performance by a team in the World Cup finals? Or the composure shown by Maradona, after being pegged back by a typically dogged German comeback, in that very stadium 16 years later to find Burruchaga for the winner? There are arguments to show the UEFA Champions League is bigger but you can (possibly) buy success in the Champions League but you can never do that in international tournaments.
There have been 20 World Cups held so far and they have thrown up the unlikeliest of heroes and the sweetest of redemptions. Pele was an unknown teenager thought to be mentally weak when selected for the 1958 World Cup. A slow start in Sweden forced Vicente Feola to introduce Pele & Garrincha to the world who took the cup by storm. After a barnstorming win against Soviet Union, Pele scored the winner against Wales in the QFs, a hat-trick in the 5-2 SF thrashing of Fontaine & Kopa’s France and a brace in the final vs the hosts meant he permanently etched his name in history and his career hadn’t even begun!
Paolo Rossi’s career was in tatters after the 1980 Totonero scandal. He missed out on the 1980 Euro on home soil and was a late inclusion to the 1982 World Cup squad. Had his original suspension not been reduced he could not have made the cut. He lacked match fitness and huffed and puffed through the first 4 matches. Unexpectedly, he came to life in the must win game against high flying but defensively suspect Brazil scoring one of the most famous hat-tricks in the tournament’s history. Suddenly he couldn’t stop scoring and lifted Italy to their 3rd title to draw level with Brazil for the most titles.
Other unexpected storylines include Maradona’s magnificent redemption in ’86 after a forgettable ’82 where he was kicked out of the tournament or his suspension and Argentina’s subsequent emotional collapse in ’94. Ronaldo’s night of fits in ’98 followed by career threatening knee injuries that had him out of the game for best part of 4 years in the run up to Korea/Japan 2002. His sweet catharsis in 2002 after Brazil barely made it to the finals is one of the greatest stories in the cup’s long history. The 38 year old Roger Milla’s comeback and Toto Schillaci’s unexpected golden boot in ’90, Amarildo replacing Pele in ’62. The World cup is filled with tales that could be made into at least 50 inspirational sports movies.
There is one player who, yours truly believes, is the most decisive player in a single World Cup in all its history. By decisive I mean exactly that: decisive. He was not the best player in the team, not the man of the tournament and was not even close to being man of the match in any match but in the knockout rounds he was the guy who decided 3 out of the 4 matches and basically won the cup for his country. That man is Fabio Grosso.
Fabio Grosso made his national team debut in 2003 while playing for Perugia. He made a surprise transfer to Palermo in the winter transfer window of 2004. The surprise was that Palermo were in Serie B and Perugia were in the top flight. In hindsight it turned out to be an excellent decision as Perugia were relegated and Palermo were promoted as Serie B champions. Palermo took to Serie A as a duck to water finishing in an impressive 6th place and qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Playing in an extra tournament meant that Palermo’s league form suffered as they finished 8th in the following season but were impressive in both cup competitions. They lost to Schalke in the round of 16 after winning the 1st leg at home and were eliminated by Totti’s Roma on away goals in the Coppa Italia semifinals.
Grosso was the leftback playing more than 80 matches in Palermo’s return to Serie A. His two impressive seasons were rewarded with a place in
Paul Newman Marcelo Lippi’s squad for the 2006 World Cup.
Palermo’s impressive season meant that 3 more players earned their places in the same squad. Four Palermo players were more than Roma(3), Inter(1), Fiorentina(1), Lazio(2) and only 1 less than Milan & Juve with 5 each. Quite impressive for a side that were in Serie A for just 2 seasons after a 31 year absence.
The tournament in Germany began very comfortably for Italy as they beat Ghana 2-0 thanks to a strike in each half from Pirlo & Iaquinta. Their 2nd match was a bloody affair where Daniele De Rossi was sent off for elbowing Brian McBride and subsequently suspended for 4 matches. This meant that he could play in the tournament again only if Italy were to make the final. Italy drew the match 1-1 and beat injury plagued Czech Republic in the third match mostly in 2nd gear to win their group.
Grosso was just OK in the group stages and did not play against USA. The magic was to begin the knockout rounds. First up to face Italy were Guus Hiddink’s Australia. Four years earlier, Hiddink’s South Korea had beaten Italy in farcical circumstances through a golden goal by Perugia’s Ahn Jun-Hwan aka South Korea’s David Beckham. Perugia’s owner voided his contract because he had “ruined Italian football”. Australia were an athletic and well-drilled typical Hiddink side. A cagey physical affair for 90 minutes that saw 6 yellow cards and sending off of Materazzi just minutes after the 2nd half began was settled when Grosso was dubiously brought down inside the box just as injury time began. Roma’s Il Capitano Totti duly dispatched the penalty to win it just as extra time loomed.
The quarterfinal was versus Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine. Ukraine were coming off a bleed-your-eyes awful 2nd round match vs Switzerland. A 0-0 draw after 2 hours of awful football which was succeeded by the Swiss missing all their penalties and Ukraine proceeded to face the Italians. The Italians romped to a 3-0 win with the other fullback Zambrotta opening the score and current Capocannonieri Luca Toni getting two. There was no real Grosso magic moment in this game. Luca Toni would be the only one of two players to score more than 1 goal for Italy.
The semifinal versus Germany was of great intrigue. An unexpected finals appearance in Japan was followed by an ignominious group stage exit in Portugal but this was the new Germany. After the disappointments of Euro 2000, Germany revamped their club youth squads. This paid rich dividends when they hosted the World cup as their team was filled with youngsters like Schweinsteiger, Podolski, Lahm, Hitzelsperger and veterans like Klose, Lehmann, Ballack. The semifinal was to be played in Westfalenstadion, the home of Borussia Dortmund. The stadium was a fortress as Germany had never lost a game there but Germany (and the former West Germany) had also never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture ever. Something had to give.
The match was an all time classic echoing the memories of the match of the century in 1970. A titanic struggle between a frenetic young German side versus a wily veteran Italy. The lack of goals for 119 minutes did not diminish an exciting contest. An Italian corner in the 119 minute was headed out to Andrea Pirlo on the edge of the box. The Milan man shimmied past a couple of players and slid the ball through to an unmarked Grosso around a sea of players. The Abruzzese hit a first time shot that curled just inside the far post and ran off in a tribute to Marco Tardelli’s 1982 celebration. Germany poured men forward in search of the equalizer and Italy killed the game off as Del Piero curled one to finish the smoothest of counterattacks to maintain the undefeated record in competitive matches vs Germany.
The 2006 World Cup final in Berlin was a repeat of the 2000 UEFA Euro final between Italy and France. France had won that match 6 years earlier thanks to a late late equalizer from Sylvain Wiltord and a golden goal from the Buenos Aires bred future Pune City star David Trezeguet. The match got to a fast start as France went ahead through a contentious 7th minute penalty conceded by Materazzi and converted by Zidane. The ball hit the underside of the bar, bounced inside the goal and came outside. Materazzi would make amends by heading the equalizer from a Pirlo corner just 12 minutes later. The rest of the match was cagey affair with Cannavaro, in Nesta’s absence through injury, marshalling the defence as no team was able to make a breakthrough. The only notable action in extra-time was a fierce Zidane header brilliantly saved by Buffon that hit the crossbar. Then came the incident.
Materazzi was sledging Zidane as the hotheaded Frenchman lost it and headbutted the Italian’s chest. The referee missed the incident and was informed by the 4th official. After some consultations the referee sent Zidane off the 14th time in his career. With Henry also taken off a few minutes earlier, France had now lost two of their best penalty takers. The first 3 penalties were converted as Trezeguet stepped up. The hero of Rotterdam, 6 years earlier, hit the ball as it rocketed off the crossbar and hit, this time, the ground just outside the goal. The subsequent 4 penalties were converted and up stepped Fabio Grosso to win it for Italy for the 1st time since 1982. He coolly sent Barthez the wrong way and hit the top corner to give Italy their 4th World title in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal. This made it 2 in 2 for Italy in World cups held after major scandals in Serie A.
A win that threw up the unlikeliest of heroes in Fabio Grosso. Grosso moved to Internazionale after the tournament and spent an anonymous few years with Inter, Lyon and Juventus winning league titles with each club. World cup heroes like Schiaffino, Garrincha, Kempes etc had fine club careers to fall back upon but no hero had such a decisive big moment impact like Fabio Grosso and no hero was as nondescript as the man from Chieti. Thus, the greatest of the unlikeliest of the most decisive World Cup heroes: Fabio Grosso.