The old woman leapt into the air in fright. She had only gone out to hang up her washing but suddenly found herself apparently being berated by an angry mob of wildly gesticulating men. The look of shock in her eyes was as genuine as it was understandable.
I’m ashamed to say that I was one of those bile-spitting individuals who scared an unsuspecting neighbour so undeservedly. I was in the process of breaking the world record for packing the most Scottish-Italians possible into a one-bedroom flat to watch a football game. My fear was it might be followed by the record number to appear in court on manslaughter charges. It would have taken the most benevolent and Azzurri-sympathising judge to accept our plea in mitigation: “But, M’Lud, this was Italy against the Netherlands in the semi-final of Euro 2000!”
Happily, the woman scurried back inside unscathed after our howls of fury and frustration in her direction. A penalty award had provoked such ire that I have never seen more red faces since the participants in a Scottish stag-do fell asleep under the Spanish sun. It was the kind of clash with the host nation of a major tournament which has become something of a speciality for the boys in blue. And its hero was the kind of player not normally used to earning much praise - a Fiorentina goalkeeper.
Dino Zoff’s side had already played its part in sending out co-hosts Belgium in the group stages but there was little doubt the Oranje represented a stiffer test. The Azzurri had managed a competent 2-0 win over Romania in the quarter-finals while the home side brutally put away Yugoslavia by six goals to one. Patrick Kluivert with a hat-trick and Marc Overmars with a double had been the main architects of that destruction. Frank Rijkaard looked to have a very strong chance of taking his team all the way to lifting the trophy.
But Club Italia in general and Francesco Toldo in particular had other ideas. Over a gripping two hours and more of football they delivered a performance which was excruciating and ecstatic in equal measure. You know the Nazionale by now, they never like to do things the easy way.
Even by their own torturous standards, however, this was a particularly uphill struggle. The Dutch had the best of the opening exchanges - Dennis Bergkamp hit a post - and when Gianluca Zambrotta saw red after a little more than half an hour it appeared the game had taken a crucial swing. A few minutes later and a penalty was awarded which should have given the host nation a concrete advantage. Alessandro Nesta tugged at Kluivert and the referee pointed to the spot and the Orange-tinged Amsterdam Arena roared in delight.
“The referee, Marcus Merk I think, had given an interview before the game warning the Italians to be careful with their hands,” recalled Nesta. “I tugged him a little but the decision was quite harsh.”
But that was where Toldo really started his heroics. He palmed away Frank de Boer’s effort and the scores stayed level. It seemed to galvanise the whole Italian team into some kind of superhuman effort to stay in the game.
“The referee favoured them because they wanted a France v Holland final, that was very clear,” said the big Viola goalie. “In the game before I remembered De Boer had shot to the goalkeeper’s right. I guessed he would go left this time and he did.”
“We were all sure he could save it,” remembered Gigi Di Biagio. “He was going through a great spell.”
The goalkeeper needed to be in outstanding form. When a second penalty was awarded - the one which sent us screaming at the television and scaring an old lady - it looked like his efforts had been in vain. This time, though, Kluivert would take the kick.
“We exchanged glances and it was like there was a challenge between us,” claimed Toldo. “I knew I shouldn’t move until the last minute because he was watching me. He had to angle the ball as much as possible because he thought I might go that way.” Incredibly, the ball pinged back off the post and the Azzurri survived to fight another day.
They would play all the way through normal time and extra time with 10 men and still hold on to the draw which could potentially put them through. They even created a few chances, the most notable falling to Marco Delvecchio. But this game was always destined to be decided by a penalty shoot-out.
“From the tips of my toes up to my back my whole right leg was cramped up,” recalled Di Biagio, who missed a spot-kick at the World Cup two years earlier. “I got back up because we had no more substitutes. I will never forget those last minutes because I could hardly walk but I knew I had to take a penalty.
“I was shaking,” he continued. “It is a feeling I will never forget. I will remember this one more than the one in France. Because in France I was sure I would score, I had been playing well and then came that error.”
Luckily, he could count on the dubious help of Francesco Totti. “Instead of telling me everything was going to be fine he looked at Edwin van der Sar and said: ‘Look how big he is!’.” The joke worked, however, and this time Gigi thumped his spot-kick home. It put the pressure, once again, on Frank de Boer.
“He took the first one (in the shoot-out),” said Toldo. “He took it like the one before but harder and less accurate and so it wasn’t as angled. So I saved it and he was in despair.”
Gianluca Pessotto put his penalty past his Juventus team-mate and then it was Jaap Stam’s turn. “His penalty was a classic defender’s penalty, it was really powerful but he hit it too high and it ended up in the crowd,” said Toldo. That set up a special cameo performance from Totti.
“When he went up to take the penalty he turned round and said: ‘I’ll chip it.’”, remembered Nesta. “We said: ‘Let’s hope not, let’s hope he hits it hard.’ He jokes a lot, we hoped he was joking.” It was no quip, of course, and his cucchiaio was scooped into the goal.
“He showed great character,” said Di Biagio. “It was not easy to do something like that.”
Kluivert finally converted a penalty to give the Dutch a chance at 3-1 with Paolo Maldini to step up for Italy. But he admitted he took a poor kick which was saved. Suddenly the door was open for an improbable comeback. Paul Bosvelt had to score his kick to keep the game going but he would be no match for Toldo. Once again the goalie guessed right and the match was over. Incredibly, Italy were through to the final.
Toldo still beams from ear to ear when asked about that game. It was probably the finest performance of his career and there was little more he could have done to influence its outcome. As a Fiorentina follower, it was a rare pleasure for one of our own to play such a vital role for the Azzurri.
The tournament ended badly, of course, with that golden goal from David Trezeguet giving France victory in the final but the semi-final was a performance to live long in the memory. It took every ounce of concentration and focus from the Italians to secure their qualification from that match. All it cost me was a red-faced apology to a neighbour for any fright I might have caused.
Italy: Toldo; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Nesta, Iuliano, Maldini; Albertini (77 Pessotto), Di Biagio, Fiore (83 Totti), Del Piero, Inzaghi (67 Delvecchio).
Netherlands: Van der Sar; Bosvelt, Stam, F de Boer, Van Bronckhorst; Cocu (95 Winter), Davids; Overmars, Bergkamp (86 Seedorf), Zenden (77 Van Vossen); Kluivert.