Italy look to put bitterness behind them
DUISBURG, Germany, July 7: Italy seek their fourth World Cup title on Sunday with memories of two recent bitter defeats to opponents France adding extra motivation, if any were needed, for the Azzurri.
Eight years ago, a highly-rated Italian side were knocked out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage on penalties by France who, as hosts, went on to win the final.
Two years later, Dino Zoff's Italy came up against the French again, in the final of Euro 2000, losing out to a golden goal struck by David Trezeguet.
''We hope we can end that run and beat them this time,'' said Italy defender Marco Materazzi who will once again partner captain Fabio Cannavaro in the centre of defence in the absence of the injured Alessandro Nesta.
Marcello Lippi's side have, as the coach himself put it ''grown throughout the tournament'' and their 2-0 win over hosts Germany in Tuesday's semi-final was by far their best display at the finals.
It took goals late in the second period of extra time from Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero to defeat Germany in Dortmund but Lippi's team showed their quality and maturity throughout the 120 minutes.
Italy's success, as always, has been built on a rock solid defence, marshalled superbly by Cannavaro, who will win his 100th cap on Sunday, and keeper Gianluigi Buffon has conceded just one goal -- a freakish own goal -- in the tournament so far.
Attacking full-backs Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta have given the side width and in midfield the grit and determination of Gennaro Gattuso and the classy passing of Andrea Pirlo have ensured plenty of possession.
The 11 Italian goals in the finals have come from 10 different players with every striker in the squad finding the target as the Azzurri have extended their unbeaten run to 24 games.
In previous tournaments internal rivalries have led to rumours of dressing room disunity but at this World Cup, the Italians have shown an impressive unity and a great determination.
Lippi has admitted that some of that team spirit was forged in the face of adversity as his team began their preparations for the final as the Serie A match-fixing scandal developed, while Cannavaro says there has been a huge desire to make up for recent disappointments.
Italy went out to co-hosts South Korea in the second round of the World Cup two years ago and then failed to make it out of the group stage of Euro 2004.
''We've accumulated a lot of anger after two major disappointments,'' said Cannavaro.
''We put that rage to good use on the pitch and you can see that at the World Cup -- we are turning that anger into something positive,'' he said.
The Italians went out of those two tournaments with snarls and sour accusations but there have been only smiles and hugs from the Italians this time.
A nation which has had to endure months of reports of corruption and shady dealings in their game took to the streets in their thousands to celebrate the semi-final win on Tuesday.
Sunday could be the moment all of the accumulated bitterness finally disappears in an explosion of joy.