FIFA Under 20s World Cup: Italy 3-2 Zambia
Eurosport co-commentator Stewart Robson knew. He usually does. “When you come to tournaments,” he noted, co-incidentally listing the ones for which Eurosport had UK broadcast rights, “you are looking for one of the great games. And this,” he added as Italy’s Under 20s World Cup quarter-final against Zambia approached extra-time, “could be it.”
Commentator Tim Caple knew too. He usually does…and if he doesn’t Robson is always quick to tell him. “Up to 50 shots,” he gasped. “Almost unheard of.” And Zambia’s occasional “shoot-(impulsively-off-target)-on-sight” policy only contributed marginally to that stat.
Italy/Zambia was better still for the significant and dramatic role of the Video Assistant Referees (VARs). Even the one pity, the paltry crowd, was rendered irrelevant by the on-going on-field excitement and the loud, argumentative commentary-box noise after the VARs “assisted.”
Curiously, Zambia wore their Cote D’Ivoire-lookalike kit. Later on, Why-are-England-in-blue? beat a Mexican side wearing their green “first” kit. And Zambia’s all-green affair was no colour clash with the Azzurri’s…well…azure. Maybe these finals’ ridiculously tight schedule left some kits “in the wash.” But there can hardly be a washing-machine shortage in Korea, home of Samsung.
I digress. The first of many breath-taking moments emanated from the commentary box. Italian coach Alberico Evani is a combination of all stereotypical Mafiosi extras from 1960s films, with a spaghetti-western moustache. But if that wasn’t show-stopping enough on first sight, Caple said “he played with Joe Jordan” and…er…that was it, the “dead air” caused by the resultant commentary box silence echoing the thoughts of a momentarily-disturbed nation.
The game quickly snapped us out of that. Zambia led on four minutes with Patson Daka’s exquisitely-dinked right-foot finish to a counter-attack quicker than a turbo-charged Chelsea. “Zambia. In…the…mood,” my notes read, as too many Zambian players for coach Beston Chambesi’s liking began multi-somersault celebrations. Fortunately for Italy, so was keeper Andrea Zaccagno, at the fullest of stretches to turn Emmanuel Banda’s left-footed 15th-minute free-kick onto the post.
Italy’s Riccardo Orsolini has become the finals’ most “involved” player if not, quite, the best. And with Zambia naming two full-backs as little more than a gesture, Orsolini was providing and receiving plenty of service from wide areas.
He and centre-forward Andrea Favilli (more Christian Vieri than Luca Toni, Caple and Robson decided between them) had chances before Orsolini produced the best defensive header of the tournament, on 33 minutes. Unfortunately for him, it was the face of the Zambian goal he somehow managed to head across after team misnomer Giuseppe Panico’s wonderful cross gave him a free header a yard-and-a-half from goal.
And four minutes before half-time, it began to look like TWO of those days for Evani’s team. Another lightning Zambian break sent Edward Chilufya clean through But as Chilufya sped past chasing defender Giuseppe Pezzella he lost his balance and fell over altogether as he tried to take the ball past the briefly-hesitant Zaccagno.
Ecuadorian referee Roddy Zambrano pointed to the penalty spot with a semi-conviction that suggested VARs were due a call. To use Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher’s effective “doesn’t look right” test, it didn’t look as if Zaccagno had touched the unsteadily flying Zambian. And the lack of immediate TV replays from 94 angles confirmed that the VARs were at work.
Expectations were that Zaccagno might see red if Zambrano forgot that a penalty was deemed sufficient punishment for DOGSO (denial of a goal-scoring opportunity) in more enlightened pre-Brexit, pre-Trump times. Or that Chilufya would see yellow for simulation. No-one expected a free-kick to be given on the 18-yard line. And no-one at ALL expected Pezzella to be sent-off, least of all Pezzella himself.
Replays from behind the goal showed minimal contact between Pezzella and Chilufya. But Chilufya’s speed was enough to make him hit the deck, albeit “in-instalments.” And a replay of the main camera shot showed Pezzella lifting his hand sharply away from Chilufya’s shoulder, which was the equivalent of writing “I have just committed a foul” in massive vapour-trails across a cloudless sky.
In the com-box, confusion reigned. Caple thought it was a definite penalty for a foul by Zaccagno. Robson was “not so sure.” Both commentators got the review process and its scope wrong. And as to whether Zambrano had called in the VARs, Caple suggested: “He’s clearly chosen not to. Maybe.” The thoughts of a nation echoed again.
Robson was not having it. “I’m not having it,” he confirmed, forcefully and frequently. “It’s an absolutely disgraceful decision. It’s completely changed the game.” The latter proved true, though probably not how Robson was suggesting as, almost un-noticed, Italy introduced Federico Dimarco as part of their enforced tactical re-adjustment.
Zaccagno then made a fine save from, of all people, Chilufya. These were to become key moments. But, at the time, the priority was searching for the plot Robson was completely losing. Eurosport half-times are usually missable affairs. Brief summaries over stock pre-match shots of waving spectators gurning gormlessly at themselves on stadium big screens, in-between tediously-lengthy ad breaks. Not here.
Caple and Robson were not in agreement. Caple’s devil’s advocacy became a dawning realisation that the VARs got it right. While Robson, Eurosport’s best pundit by a country-mile-and-a-half, continued having none of it. “He’s still in control of the ball.” “No, he’s not.” “He’s pushed him.” “No, he hasn’t.” “You can see why he gave it.” “No, I can’t, however you try and butter it up.” And “the problem with video technology,” Robson concluded, was “you are getting a referee’s view.” Pure frontier gibberish. But from the heart.
In fact, it was exactly how fans would argue, and all the more admirable for that. Eurosport coffee mugs had probably taken flight while the ads rolled. Argument raged until the teams re-emerged. (“He shoved him.” “No, he didn’t.” “Well, he put his arm out and what do you call that when…” “I’ve told you what it is, it’s not a foul”). And Robson only regained his composure once the on-field fun, fun, FUN restarted. Thankfully, the universal confidence that this wouldn’t take long was justified.
Robson’s sense of Italian injustice may have made wishful thinking of his uncertainty that “Zambia are good enough in possession to make the most of (their man-advantage).” But he got it right. On 50 minutes, Panico and Orsolini filmed a second take of Orsolini’s ludicrous first-half miss and this time Orsolini got it right.
However, Robson wasn’t right immediately. Zambia threatened to overwhelm their opposition as they had after falling two-behind to Iran. Daka was rightly denied a second goal by an offside flag. And Zaccagno all-but-clinched the player-of-the-finals award with a string of photogenic but fabulous saves, as Zambia’s long-range shooting temporarily improved.
The wisdom of Evani’s changes became more apparent as Panico became more of a description of Zambia’s defending. Dimarco’s crossing and cross-field passes were constant threats and Italy’s front three all contributed to a lengthy chance-per-minute spell, a fabulous spell of football which entirely masked their man disadvantage.
Robson sounded right on 84 minutes when he declared “that should take them into the semi-finals” after Fashion Sakala finished off Zambia’s umpteenth slick move with a thumping right-foot drive. But their allergy to holding onto late leads re-emerged four minutes later, Dimarco curling home the perfect left-footed free-kick from 20 yards past the watching, helpless Banda.
There was last-touch drama (which has felt like a contractual obligation in Zambia’s matches) when the unmarked Muchindu headed wide from a corner. And Robson had little time to rant about the futility of extra-time before Kenneth Kalunga squirmed his right-foot shot across goal and inches out of Sakala’s reach.
Evani had again made the decisive move when focus was elsewhere, introducing midfielder Luca Vido while Zambia star-jumped into a prayer circle (no…really) celebrating their second goal. Yet Vido’s was nearly a four-minute cameo. Having “won” Dimarco’s equalising free-kick he should have attracted the VARs’ attention with a 91st-minute step/stamp on Chilufya’s leg (“perhaps they’ve gone for coffee” – Caple).
Thus reprieved, Vido bullet-headed home Dimarco’s 111th-minute corner, which he also won (no inverted commas needed this time). Vido stripped off shirt and vest, which might have been worth two yellow cards to sniffier refs. Zambrano, though, smiled sympathetically as he booked Vido just the once, the young Italian shaking the ref’s hand, caring not a jot.
Zambia’s bench was a row of heads-in-hands (and one towel). But they hadn’t quite given up on the pitch, forcing Zaccagno into another two camera-friendly but excellent saves before the final whistle brought the curtain down on an extra-time period about which even Robson couldn’t complain.
Had this been in a senior tournament, Italy/Zambia would be ranked alongside Italy/West Germany (1970 World Cup), Brazil/Italy (1982 World Cup), France/Portugal (Euro ‘84), Spain/Yugoslavia (Euro 2000) or my favourite, the 2012 Women’s Olympic semi-final, Canada against the USA and the referee (he says with no lingering bitterness).
Alas, the World Under-20s finals don’t, yet, get that global attention, although the Caple/Robson spat might go viral. One of the great games, nonetheless.