The grudge match: France v Italy
By Daniel King Last updated at 11:12 PM on 31st May 2008
As a potential showcase of football’s most magical skills and its darkest arts, the grudge game in the Group of Death – the World Cup final rematch between France and Italy – has no rivals.
Zinedine Zidane may have retired, but his last act as a professional footballer, the outrageous headbutt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi 10 minutes before the end of extratime in Berlin two years ago, will be in the minds of everyone watching and playing in the game in Zurich a fortnight on Tuesday.
France’s Zinedine Zidane head-butts Italy’s Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final
France earned some revenge for what they regarded as Materazzi’s provocation of Zidane, not to mention their subsequent defeat on penalties, when they beat Italy 3-1 in Paris in a qualifier for the upcoming tournament just 59 days after what had happened in Berlin.
But if revenge is a dish best served a little colder, victory in a game which may well eliminate the losers from Euro 2008 would feel almost as good to the French as winning the World Cup.
Just ask France and Arsenal defender William Gallas. “The match against Italy has some ill-feeling attached to it because of the 2006 World Cup,” said Gallas. “For many of our guys, that final is still very much with them. To win and to knock out the Italians would be perfect, but it is necessary to play with the head, not just the heart.”
Playing with the head is what tainted, perhaps for ever, the career of Zidane after he and his country’s other golden oldies had led France to another World Cup final.
Chelsea’s Claude Makelele, who came out of international retirement for the 2006 campaign with Zidane and Lilian Thuram, still mourns the exit from the stage of one of football’s greatest artists, but he knows he must now focus on the next challenge.
“This European Championship is our first big trophy without Zidane,” said Makelele, who will follow his friend into retirement after the tournament. “It’s sad, but Zizou is history for France.
“For us the match against Italy is important and decisive. The final in Germany in 2006 is still in our heads and our challenge is to exact sporting revenge, not only for the squad, but for the fans. That was a very unhappy moment.”
Any clash between two of the game’s superpowers on the final night of Group C would always have been a tense and compelling occasion, especially with fellow heavyweights Holland and dark horses Romania contesting qualification for the quarter-finals.
In what many regard as a very open tournament, the chance to unseat a major rival for the title is a tantalising prospect, not least for Gallas and Makelele after their dreams of club silverware were dashed in the finishing straight.
Gallas said: “For me, the Euros are an opportunity to break away from a negative season. I believed that Arsenal would be successful, but in the end it was not possible.
“Now I aspire to the ultimate prize with France, but it is not easy. We are in the group of death, that’s for sure.”
Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s World Cup-winning captain, admits the match against France, which is also a repeat of the Euro 2000 final won for France by David Trezeguet’s golden goal, is the big one in a tough opening schedule.
“The match against the French will be special,” said the Real Madrid defender.
“This championship is very even and in the first phase we expect very difficult matches.
“The games against France, Holland and Romania are nearly finals, but that is not a problem. It’s normal for the squad to be optimistic and all my team-mates believe in our chances of winning the cup.”
Not least his fellow exile in Spain, Gianluca Zambrotta. The Barcelona full-back said: “This Euro is very open because I think there are teams like Spain and Portugal who are very dangerous. So it’s not just Italy, France, Germany or Holland.
“But Italy are the team to beat in these Euros. Winning the World Cup was more difficult, but we did it.”