There are some footballers who seem to find their stride at exactly the right moment, a magical period in time where the stars align and everything simply falls into place. World Cup 2006 was that perfect juncture for Palermo left-back Fabio Grosso, a bit-part player for Italy who became a star as the Azzurri lifted the coveted trophy following a penalty shoot-out victory in the final versus France.
The August 2006 edition of FourFourTwo magazine named Grosso in their team of the tournament for his vital performances for Italy, however, the defender never achieved anything like these heights in his career either before, or after.
After beginning his career at Renato Curi near to the family home in Abruzzo, Grosso eventually moved on to Serie C2 side Chieti. He would make a slow start, not making his Serie A debut until the age of 23 with Perugia in 2001. It was there where Serse Cosmi adapted the role of the left winger into a more defensive wing-back position and he would go on to join Serie B side Palermo in January 2004.
The Sicilian outfit would earn promotion to the top-flight at the end of that campaign and Grosso would attract the attention of Italy boss Marcello Lippi following some excellent performances for the Rosanero and it was in 2005 that the defender would become a regular in Azzurri.
Perhaps it was a little daunting for a man with such humble beginnings to be named as part as Italy’s 2006 World Cup squad at the age of 28 – the side brimming with star names such as Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero – however, Grosso was only ever expected to be deployed as a backup in Germany. Yet Lippi was also expert at handling the balance of the squad as a whole, and it is widely accepted that everyone in that squad was made to feel as important as each other. Handed a start in the opening match with Ghana, Grosso was dropped by the Coach for the following group game with the USA.
However an own goal scored in that fixture by Cristian Zaccardo saw his Palermo team-mate seize his chance as Lippi swapped Gianluca Zambrotta to right-back for the final group encounter – a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic – and from there Grosso never looked back.
As Italy struggled through a last-sixteen tie with Australia, Grosso would win a penalty in stoppage time with the scores deadlocked at 0-0. Totti would step up to send the Azzurri through to the quarter-final from the resulting spot-kick, but this was only the beginning of the defender’s influence on his side’s tournament victory.
Once again in the side for a relatively straightforward 3-0 victory over Ukraine to advance to the semi-final, the Palermo man with such a modest start to his career was about to have his moment in the spotlight.
Germany was the opponent at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion and the hosts had never been beaten in 14 matches at this fortress-like venue. Penalties were looming – never a welcome prospect versus Die Mannschaft – until Andrea Pirlo found Grosso with an exquisite pass in the 119th minute.
“There was a corner [to Italy] and the ball came out to me. I couldn’t shoot and I saw Grosso out of the corner of my eye, and I saw he was unmarked so I tried to give him the ball,” revealed the midfielder to the Financial Times. “It was a through ball which allowed him to hit it with his left and the rest was down to him.”
The Palermo left-back – who had agreed a €5 million move to Inter before the tournament began – curled a perfect shot beyond Jens Lehmann in the Germany net, sealing an emphatic passage into the final with France. Alas, Italy would not avoid penalties in that subsequent match, but Grosso would become one of all five Azzurri men to convert while David Trezeguet missed the crucial spot-kick for Les Bleus.
Many will remember those aforementioned stars kissing the famous World Cup trophy as they celebrated their victory, but in truth, Lippi had orchestrated a real team effort. No less than ten players had found the net in that tournament, but it was Grosso that had arguably become the unlikeliest of heroes for his role in that famous semi-final.
Despite spells at both Inter and Juventus, the left-back – who is currently in charge of Serie B side Bari – never again reached the dizzy heights of the 2006 World Cup. In that year, Grosso embodied the typical player that makes a step up to stardom in order to shine on the world stage, and a nation of Italians will be forever grateful to him for that.