It only takes place every four years, and even then it only lasts for four weeks, but for football fans across the globe, the FIFA World Cup™ is the ultimate the sport has to offer. Everything else takes a back seat when the world's finest national teams come together in search of their champion, in a truly global showdown.
A wave of passion and enthusiasm sweeps the host nation when the show comes to town, and plenty of local fans dream of cheering their heroes all the way to a FIFA World Cup triumph on home soil. In 2006, Germany were poised to make the dream a reality. A hitherto unseen avalanche of euphoria and pride swept the nation, epitomised by the joyfully memorable fan fests and public viewing events, as the home team won over even their most obdurate doubters with a string of courageous displays. The phenomenon was dubbed the Sommermarchen (summer fairytale) – a documentary film by the same name drew vast numbers to cinema box offices later in the year – and for a time, the fable looked likely to have a happy ending.
The Germans met Italy on 4 July 2006 in Dortmund, just a game away from their second consecutive appearance in the FIFA World Cup Final. But it was not to be, as the hosts exited the tournament at the hands of the eventual winners in dramatic fashion. All-time great Franz Beckenbauer later described it as the match of the tournament.
Germany comfortably won Group A with victories over Costa Rica (4-2), Poland (1-0) and Ecuador (3-0). Neither last 16 opponents Sweden, who were beaten 2-0 in Munich, nor quarter-final foes Argentina proved able to stop the home juggernaut, although the last eight meeting in Berlin went to a penalty shoot-out, which the hosts won 4-2.
For their part, the Azzurri finished first in Group E. With victories over Czech Republic (2-0) and Ghana (2-0) either side of a 1-1 draw against USA, Marcello Lippi's side sealed top spot. In the Round of 16 and quarter-finals, the Italians fell back on their famed defensive nous with a last-minute 1-0 win over Australia and a 3-0 victory against Ukraine to seal a semi-final berth, where they arrived on the back of conceding just once in five games.
The vast majority of the 65,000 full house at the FIFA World Cup Stadium Dortmund looked to history for reassurance: Germany had never lost a competitive fixture at the stadium known locally as the national team’s 'living room'. The hosts ran up their 1-0 group stage victory over Poland at the same ground.
The Dortmund crowd did their utmost to propel their heroes towards the Final with a deafening cacophony of noise, but the Italians seized the initiative from the start. Germany keeper Jens Lehmann was forced into a sweeper role on a number of occasions as the Azzurri’s pace threatened to take them beyond the German defence. Once the initial storm had blown itself out, the contest settled into an absorbing end-to-end affair.
For Italy, Andrea Pirlo played a starring role with a classic playmaker’s blend of subtle promptings and moments of inspiration, collecting the ball on the edge of his own box, advancing 30 yards and then picking out deceptively mobile centre-forward Luca Toni with a series of pinpoint passes.
However, Germany showed they had not reached the last four by accident. The only semi-finalists to start with two men up front, Lukas Podolski and FIFA World Cup leading scorer Miroslav Klose alternately darted and battered away at the Italian rearguard. However, the Squadra Azzurra defence held firm, superbly marshalled by FIFA World Player of the Year and team captain Fabio Cannavaro, whose reading of the play and almost uncanny ability to second guess his opponents’ scheming meant keeper Gianluigi Buffon was seldom called into serious action.
Having exhausted the creative option, the host nation opted for force. Midway through the second half, Germany summoned up enormous reserves of strength and determination in an effort to break the deadlock. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought on fresh legs in the shape of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Odonkor, but the 90 minutes ended goalless and the game went into extra time.
Having already made a like-for-like swap by replacing Toni with Alberto Gilardino, Lippi opted to gamble. The introduction of Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alessandro del Piero gave Italy a three-man forward line. "We had more arrows in our quiver," the coach said afterwards. The move paid off, but not until the dying minutes.
The Germans created a handful of chances in a dramatic period of extra time, but the Italians had much the better of the overall play. And then it happened: on 119 minutes, just as the teams appeared to have settled for penalties, the Mannschaft failed to clear their lines after a corner, Pirlo picked out the unmarked Fabio Grosso, and the fullback planted a curling left-foot shot into the bottom corner of the net. Just a minute later, and with the entire Germany defence committed to attack, Del Piero made it 2-0 and sealed his side’s passage to the Final.
What they said
"The team’s very, very disappointed and despondent. We’ll need time to swallow the bitter pill of defeat and come to terms with it. But I’ve told my team they can be incredibly proud of themselves." Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann
"It’s extremely gratifying, because we deserved to win. It’s quite simple: we dominated the game for long spells." Italy coach Marcello Lippi.
"We’re devastated about losing so close to the end. It’s hard to find an explanation. The teams were evenly-matched, and we created decent chances of our own, which we should have put away." Germany defender Philipp Lahm
"I started to think about penalties from the beginning of the second half." Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon
What happened next...
Four days after the devastating semi-final defeat, the smiles returned to the German fans and players’ faces. The host nation beat Portugal 3-1 in Stuttgart to claim a creditable third place, and also ensure a worthy send-off for Oliver Kahn. The three-time World Goalkeeper of the Year was demoted to number two behind Lehmann shortly before the tournament, and called time on his international career following the emotional victory over the Portuguese.
The Italians ultimately made it seven games undefeated in the tournament as a whole, beating France 5-3 on penalties in the Final following a 1-1 draw after extra time to lift the FIFA World Cup Trophy for the fourth time.