This feature is part of Virtuoso
The life of a goalkeeper is all about preparation for his understudy opportunity is something that, when presented, needs to be grasped, cherished and held onto as dearly as a deep in-swinging cross. A common factor of success is when both these factors combine.
In Italy, the goalkeeping position has been in safe hands for large swathes of time by two men: Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon. Two men who contributed to both the Azzurri’s World Cup wins and on many a ‘greatest goalkeeper’ list. Whilst both men garnered much deserved acclaim, there were many others waiting in the wings, more than capable to fill the role.
The 1990s were a golden era for goalkeepers in the province. After Walter Zenga’s hesitation in the Italia 90 semi-final the list of successors makes for impressive reading: Luca Marchegiani, Angelo Peruzzi, Luca Bucci, Gianluca Pagliuca and Francesco Toldo would all walk into many top sides around Europe.
As the inaugural European Championships of the new millennium approached, Buffon was typically the first name on the teamsheet for the Azzurri. Toldo was the third-choice and expecting nothing more than a watching brief, with Peruzzi named as Buffon’s understudy. Yet, in a fit of pique, the latter stunned manager Zoff by pulling out of the squad, unwilling to play second fiddle. This would prove to be a decision he would live to regret as, soon after, Buffon broke his hand in the Azzurri’s final warm-up game against Norway, paving the way for Toldo to step into the spotlight.
Francesco Toldo began his career with AC Milan, where his opportunities were all but non-existent. Loan spells with Verona, Trentino and Ravenna left him ready for first-team football and, in 1993, a 23-year-old Toldo left the San Siro and joined Fiorentina. In Florence he would cultivate a reputation as one of Italy’s best young goalkeepers, making 266 appearances for La Viola in seven years.
Any question marks over Toldo’s selection were helped by having the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta playing in front of him. Italy advanced to the knockout stage of Euro 2000 with maximum points, winning against co-hosts Belgium, Turkey and Sweden. A clean sheet in Brussels accompanied goals from Francesco Totti and Pippo Inzaghi, which set up a semi-final with the Netherlands, who had keenly ridden the wave of their raucous home support.
The Amsterdam Arena was bedecked in orange as Toldo and his defence faced the threats of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars. Any hopes of an open semi-final were squashed just after the half-hour mark when Gianluca Zambrotta upended Boudewijn Zenden for his second yellow card. The Azzurri reverted to type, packing the defence and dropping Alessandro Del Piero into midfield, leaving Inzaghi to plough a lone furrow up front.
The Italian goal led a charmed life. Bergkamp skipped past Mark Iuliano but struck the post, leaving Toldo both stranded and relieved. The waves of orange poured forward time and again. Kluivert was pulled back by a desperate Nesta, which gifted the Dutch a penalty. Frank de Boer struck the ball hard and low but Toldo was equal to it, palming it away. He leapt up in celebration; the Azzurri’s game plan was still intact.
Lifted by this, Italy became more resolute in keeping the Netherlands at bay. A cause that was not helped when a surging Edgar Davids was felled just inside the box, giving the Dutch their second penalty. Kluivert took the ball this time and sent Toldo the wrong way from the spot but this time the post came to the Fiorentina man’s rescue. Inviting pressure led to more chances, Toldo needed to be at his best to rebuff Overmars, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Clarence Seedorf.
Extra-time eventually led to the almost inevitable penalty shootout where Toldo’s goal looked to continue its charmed life. Dutch defender Paul Bosvelt stepped up first for his country with Luigi di Biagio already putting Italy on the board. Bosvelt went for power and looked to put the ball down the middle of the goal. Toldo gambled and leapt forward off his line blocking the shot with his legs, maintaining their advantage. Italy converted their second penalty and Jaap Stam almost blazed his effort out of the stadium as the Netherlands’ woeful penalty run continued.
Confidence was high in the Azzurri camp, demonstrated by Totti’s panenka to give Italy a surely insurmountable 3-0 lead. Kluivert was next for the Dutch and left Toldo rooted as he was finally beaten from the spot at the fifth time of asking that day. Paolo Maldini squandered the chance to win it for the Azzurri as Edwin van der Sar beat his effort away.
Frank de Boer attempted to make up for his previous miss by giving his country a lifeline in the shootout, knowing another miss would spell the end of the road for the host nation. This time de Boer opted for the opposite corner to his earlier strike but Toldo was equal to it, stretching low into his bottom right corner to claw the ball away. Toldo, if not indomitable then immense, carried his team into the final.
The hosts, in familiar style, had seemingly been the architects of their own downfall yet had more than met their match in the impregnable Italian defence and their stoic goalkeeper. A trick Italy could not repeat in the final when an extra time goal from David Trezeguet gave France a 2-1 win and the Henri Delaunay trophy.
For Toldo, his stock would not rise higher than it did that summer and he took advantage of this by securing a move to Internazionale upon his return to Italy, where he played out the remainder of his career. The return of Gianluigi Buffon understandably restricted his Italy career, yet his six goals conceded in 13 appearances is a testament to the standards he and the Italian defence set.
Come the tournament’s end, Francesco Toldo was named in the team of Euro 2000, ensuring his notable contribution was proudly remembered. The honour represents a man whose preparation and opportunity may not have led to the ultimate success for he and his country but in no doubt helped to carve his name in the pantheon of the greats who once donned the hallowed gloves of the Azzurri.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp