Big things were expected of Italy at Euro 2000. Serie A was the place to be at the time, and it was up to manager Dino Zoff to prove that the national team were able to stand on their own, without all the foreign imports that helped make Italian club football so exhilarating.
Flying the flag for I Nerazzurri were superstars like Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro – perhaps the scariest back three of all time – while the excitement in attack was provided by Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi.
However, in their tournament opener against Turkey, it was industrious midfielder Antonio Conte who produced the highlight.
Conte woke up that morning feeling dangerous. The Juventus captain, known more for his stamina and defensive nous than anything else, decided he wanted to lead by example and could have opened the scoring after just five minutes.
Driving forward from deep, he collected a tidy pass from Stefano Fiore and rattled the past with a fierce shot just five minutes into the game, giving the Turks and the thousands of fans watching at home a taster of what was to come.
Before he could start strutting his stuff, however, Conte had to show all of his defensive class. The match quickly became a tactical affair and Italy needed the Juventus man to wrestle control of the game back from the opponents, and he helped keep the score level until the break.
In the dressing room, Conte decided he was done waiting for a magic moment. He was going out to find his own, and much like the first half, he needed just a few minutes to do that.
Inzaghi saw a low cross deflected high in the air by Turkey captain Alpay Ozalan, and it floated over the head of Conte. Taking inspiration from his hairline, the Italian dropped back a few inches and improvised with an overhead kick that somehow managed to look both awkward and graceful at the same time.
The ball arrowed into the top corner, leaving Turkey goalkeeper Rustu Recber floundering in the back of his own net as Conte sprinted away in uncontrollable celebration.
It was a brilliant moment which was worth its weight in gold to Italy, who needed an Inzaghi penalty to save the day after Okan Buruk had levelled things up. A 2-1 win was the perfect way to start the tournament and it provided the foundation for victories over both Belgium and Sweden, allowing Italy to finish top of their group.
Unfortunately for Conte, his tournament didn’t go much further. Against Romania in the quarter-final, he would manage just 55 minutes before a nasty collision with Gheorgi Hagi left him with an ankle injury that ended his tournament prematurely, but Conte himself was just relieved the injury wasn’t more serious.
“When I realized that he had hit me like that, I was afraid,” Conte said (via La Repubblica). “Anyone who plays football knows what will break an opponent’s leg. Hagi came in to hurt me and I noticed it immediately. I’ve no doubt that it was a foul designed to break my leg.
“The fear was stronger than the pain at that moment, but I put my foot on the ground and realised that nothing had broken. But that doesn’t even matter, because the damage had been done.”
A Conte-less Italy made it all the way to the final, where they came up against a France side boasting their own crop of generational talents.
Zoff’s men thought they were on track for greatness when they went 1-0 up through Marco Delvecchio early in the second half, but a 94th-minute equaliser from Sylvain Wiltord sent the game to extra-time, with the threat of Golden Goal still alive in those days.
Italy felt they had enough about them, but it was France who were celebrating when all was said and done as David Trezeguet fired home a ferocious half volley to break Italian hearts.
Italy’s tournament started with a worldie, and it ended in the same vein.