Euro 2000 was arguably Netherlands’ tournament to lose.
As co-hosts with Belgium, the Dutch were playing all of their games on home soil and had largely the same squad that reached the World Cup semi-finals two years earlier – eight of whom had also won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995, but were now more experienced and mature.
The Oranje collected maximum points in the group stage, finishing ahead of reigning world champions and eventual winners France, before going on to thrash Yugoslavia 6-1 in the quarter-finals. For the semi-final in an electric Amsterdam, they were favourites against Italy.
The Italians, who had also enjoyed a perfect record in the group stage, had other ideas and dumped the hosts out – although they did ride their luck at times.
Netherlands started strongly and Phillip Cocu had the first good chance, before Dennis Bergkamp later hit the post. Italy were then given a mountain to climb when Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off after picking up a second yellow card in the only the 34th minute.
Shortly after that, Alessandro Nesta was penalised for holding onto Patrick Kluivert, the Dutch dangerman who had scored five goals in his previous four games at the tournament. But Frank de Boer stepped up and saw his effort from 12 yards saved by Francesco Toldo.
Despite being 28 at the time and one of Serie A’s best goalkeepers with a strong Fiorentina side, Toldo only had played eight times for Italy when he was named in the Euro 2000 squad. He was previously a back-up at the 1998 World Cup but had hardly been called up since and made his first international appearance in almost two years in a warm-up game in April 2000.
Had Parma’s young star and Italy’s usual number one Gianluigi Buffon not suffered a broken hand in the final warm-up friendly right before the tournament, Toldo would not have been playing.
Netherlands went on to win another penalty when Edgar Davids was felled by Mark Iuliano. This time Kluivert stepped up to take it. But despite putting it beyond Toldo, as De Boer had failed to do, the Barcelona striker saw his attempt hit the woodwork instead.
By the end of the regulation 90 minutes, Italy had played for nearly an hour with 10 men. By the time extra-time was over, they had effectively played a full normal game with a player less. Yet it was the Azzurri who came closest to winning in extra-time, with Edwin van der Sar denying Marco Delvecchio what would have been a sudden death Golden Goal when he saved with his feet.
Both teams had exited the World Cup two years prior because they lost tense penalty shootouts. On that occasion, Italy fell in the quarter-finals against France, while Netherlands were denied a place in the final by Brazil. One of them had to win this time and a place in the final was at stake.
Luigi Di Biagio, whose miss in 1998 had handed victory to France, was first to walk towards the penalty sport for Italy and scored, exorcising his personal demons. Frank de Boer tried to match it. But, having already been denied by Toldo once, sent his effort too close to the goalkeeper.
Gianluca Pessotto then scored for Italy, before Jaap Stam sent a rocket of a penalty skywards.
Francesco Totti pushed it to 3-0 in Italy’s favour with an ice cold Panenka chip beyond a diving Van der Sar. Kluivert made amends for his miss during the game itself to cut the deficit slightly, but the damage was already done.
Even though Paolo Maldini squandered an opportunity to end it instantly when his penalty was saved by Van der Sar, Toldo emerged as the hero when he dived low to his right to keep out Paul Bosvelt and put Italy into the Euro 2000 final.