Germany welcomed the soccer world with open arms in 2006, staging the World Cup for the second time in the tournament's long and illustrious history.
West Germany previously hosted soccer's showcase event in 1974 when the dark spectre of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics was still fresh in the collective conscience, resulting in a tension-filled tournament.
Thirty-two years removed, it was a unified Germany that won universal praise and plaudits from the international community for its graciousness and hospitality during the 2006 World Cup. The competition's official motto, "a time to make friends," proved to be more than just a slogan - Germany created a party-like atmosphere never before seen at the World Cup by setting up fan parks and street festivals all across the country where fans could congregate and watch the games together.
Germany's impeccable hosting of the World Cup made up for the rather dubious manner in which they won the right to stage the competition in the first place.
The vote to choose the hosts of the 2006 tournament was held six years earlier in Zurich , and South Africa had the inside track as the favourite. Oceania delegate Charles Dempsey abstained from voting at the last minute, citing "intolerable pressure" - it's believed he was offered a bribe to vote for Germany.
In the end, Germany won the final vote 12-11. Had Dempsey cast his ballot for South Africa, as many believed he would, the vote would have resulted in a 12-12 tie. FIFA president Sepp Blatter would then have had to cast the deciding ballot, and he had already made known his desire to see South Africa stage the World Cup.
The 2006 World Cup was a tournament of many firsts, including the first where the defending champions were no longer granted automatic qualification - Brazil had to qualify like everybody else.
Eight nations qualified for the finals for the first time: Angola, Czech Republic, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine and Serbia & Montenegro. The Czech Republic, Serbia & Montenegro and Ukraine were making their first appearance as independent nations, having previously participated as part of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, respectively.
Whereas the 2002 World Cup saw emerging powers Senegal, South Korea, the United States and Turkey go far in the tournament, the 2006 competition marked soccer's traditional order being restored - six former world champions took part in the quarter-finals.
Fans couldn't have asked for a better start to the tournament, as the host nation defeated Costa Rica 4-2 (June 9 in Munich) in the highest-scoring opening match in World Cup history. Germany and Ecuador finished 1-2 in Group A, advancing to the second round.
Group B saw England and Sweden move on to the round of 16, while Argentina and the Netherlands emerged from Group C, dubbed the Group of Death, which included Serbia and Montenegro and the Ivory Coast.
It was the South Americans' 6-0 win over the Serbs that provided the highlight of the first round - Argentina put together a brilliant sequence that featured 24 consecutive passes, culminating with Esteban Cambiasso's goal in the 31st minute that gave Argentina a 2-0 lead.
Portugal and Mexico survived Group D ahead of Angola and Iran. Group E saw Italy and Ghana book their spots in the second round at the expense of the U.S. and the Czechs. Brazil won all three of its first-round games to win Group F ahead of Australia (Japan and Croatia went home early).
Trouble was brewing in Group G where France, featuring the marvellous Zinedine Zidane, was held to draws by Switzerland and South Korea. Les Bleus finally came good in their last match, beating Togo 2-0 to move on to the next round with the Swiss.
Spain got off to their usual great start, winning all three games to claim first place in Group H. Ukraine grabbed second spot, while Tunisia and Saudi Arabia were eliminated.
The Spanish looked be finally putting to rest their reputation as World Cup chokers when they jumped out to a 1-0 lead over France in a second-round match on June 27 in Hannover. But the French battled back thanks to Zidane, the Real Madrid star who declared he planned to retire from soccer at the end of the tournament, to move on to the quarter-finals at Spain's expense.
History was made in Brazil's 3-0 win over Ghana, as Ronaldo moved past legendary German Gerd Muller as the tournament's all-time leading scorer with his 15th career World Cup goal.
Portugal edged the Netherlands 1-0 in an ill-tempered affair in Nuremberg that saw the referee hand out 16 yellow cards (tying a tournament record) and four red cards (a new record). Lionel Messi and Argentina, one of the pre-tournament favourites, needed a highlight-reel goal from Maxi Rodriguez in extra time to dispatch Mexico 1-0.
Also advancing to the next round were Germany (2-0 winners over Sweden) and England (1-0 over Ecuador).
Switzerland was bounced from the competition by Ukraine in a penalty shootout after the teams battled to a 0-0 draw. The result meant the Swiss became the first nation ever to be eliminated from the World Cup without conceding a single goal in regulation or extra time.
The most controversial match of the round took place in Kaiserslautern between Italy and Australia. The Italians dominated the first half but were dealt a huge setback when combustible defender Marco Materazzi was controversially red-carded early in the second half, reducing Italy to 10 men.
The Aussies couldn't make use of their numerical advantage, though, and the Italians made them pay the price. With extra time looming, Fabio Grosso made a great move past two defenders and glided into the Australian box where he was brought down by Lucas Neill.
Neill was called for the foul even though it appeared Grosso tripped over the Australian who was already down on the ground. Still, Spanish referee Luis Medina was right there and made no hesitation in pointing directly to the penalty spot. Francesco Totti completed the Italian renaissance by blasting his shot past Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
Italy was fortunate to get past Australia, but luck had played no part in their emphatic 3-0 win over Ukraine in the quarter-finals, Luca Toni scoring a pair of goals for the Azzurri.
Germany appeared to be on the ropes against Argentina, but Miroslav Klose scored with 10 minutes left in regulation, and the home side went on to defeat the South Americans in a penalty shootout.
Portugal and England battled to a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes of regulation and extra time, a match that saw an ineffectual English captain David Beckham substituted in the 52nd minute. The game's flashpoint came 10 minutes later when forward Wayne Rooney stomped on Portuguese defender Ricardo Carvalho. Rooney was sent off, forcing England to play a man short for the rest of the game, which Portugal won in a shootout.
Boasting a world-class roster that included Ronaldinho (at the time the best player in the world), Kaka and Ronaldo, defending champion Brazil was expected to repeat in Germany. Somebody forgot to tell France, though. The French outplayed and outclassed their South American counterparts, with Thierry Henry scoring the winning goal in the 57th minute.
Germany and Italy have contested some memorable and thrilling matches over the years, (most notably their semifinal encounter at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico) but the two European super powers outdid themselves on July 4 in Dortmund.
Germany was undefeated in its previous 14 games in Dortmund (13 wins and one draw), but it ran into a steely and brave Italian side that would not be denied.
The game started at a ferocious pace, with Italy dominating the proceedings against the tentative Germans. Italy enjoyed the lion's share of possession in the first half, but couldn't find a crack in the German defence.
Germany took control of the game early in the second half, while Italy looked more and more uncomfortable, relying on standout defender Fabio Cannavaro and goalkeeper Gianluigi to thwart the Germans.
Extra time saw the excitement and tension build, as both teams traded scoring chances in 30 minutes of thrill-a-second action - the highlight moment came when Germany stormed the Italian penalty area and Buffon made a game-saving, one-handed stop on Lukas Podolski, tipping his wicked shot just over the crossbar.
Italian coach Marcelo Lippi decided to gamble and used four forwards in the second half of extra time. It proved a wise move, as Italy fearlessly poured forward and were rewarded for their efforts.
The game appeared to be headed to a penalty shootout, but Fabio Grosso decided the matter in the 119th minute when the Italian defender collected a pass from Andrea Pirlo and fired a marvellous curling shot that just slipped by diving German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.
Needing a goal to keep their World Cup hopes alive and with only 60 seconds to do it, Germany ventured forward in numbers, but left itself vulnerable at the back. Italy took advantage, catching its opponents up field and putting the game away when Alessandro Del Piero burst into the German penalty area and coolly beat Lehmann with a shot into the roof of the net. Easily the best match of the tournament.
The other semifinal on July 5 in Munich saw the 33-year-old Zidane turn back the clock and duplicate the form he displayed at the 1998 World Cup when France won on home soil. Zizou tortured the Portuguese, scoring the game's lone goal in the 33rd minute to send France to the final, and giving himself a chance to retire from the game as a world champion.
Before the final, though, there was the small matter of the bronze-medal game, which saw Germany win 3-1 over Portugal in Stuttgart.
Italy and France faced off in the final on July 9 in a rematch of the Euro 2000 final when David Trezeguet scored a golden goal to lift Les Bleus to victory. Trezeguet would again play a prominent role in the proceedings in Berlin, but the outcome would be much different for the French.
French fans' hearts were in their mouths when Thierry Henry crumbled to the ground after running into Italian defender Fabio Cannavaro in the opening moments of the game. The star striker looked groggy and went off the field to receive medical treatment before returning.
France took the lead in the seventh minute from the penalty spot after Florent Malouda went down inside the Italian box. It was a somewhat dubious call as replays showed Italian defender Marco Materazzi barely made contact with the Frenchman. No matter, though, as Zidane stepped up to the spot and clipped his effort off the crossbar and just over the goal-line.
The Italians were staggered and looked shaky after trailing for the first time in the tournament, but they slowly gained control of the match and netted the equalizer in the 19th minute. Andrea Pirlo delivered an exquisite corner kick into the middle of the penalty area and Materazzi majestically rose through the air to drive a powerful header past sprawling French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
France came to life at the start of the second half and wrestled control of the game away from Italy. Henry, Malouda and Franck Ribery probed, prodded and plundered their way into Italy's penalty area, only to be rebuffed each time by Cannavaro and the vaunted Italian defence.
Shortly after making a double-substitution (Vincenzo Iaquinta and Daniele De Rossi replacing Simone Perrotta and Francesco Totti), the Italians appeared to have scored on a Luca Toni header but it was negated on an offside call by the assistant referee.
France marched right back down the field and forced a brilliant save out of Buffon, who palmed away Henry's stinging shot. The French continued to pour on the pressure in the final 15 minutes and swarmed Italy's goal in numbers, but couldn't find a way past the steely and resolute Italian defence.
The French picked up where they left off and pinned the Italians back in their end of the field at the start of extra time. While France valiantly pressed forward in attack, Italy sat back in defence and soaked up the pressure.
Ribery nearly scored when his low, driving shot glided past a diving Buffon and whispered past the far post. Minutes later, Buffon made a fantastic one-handed save off a Zidane header, tipping the ball over the crossbar to deny the Frenchman.Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
And then, at the 110-minute mark, one of the most talked about and controversial moments in World Cup history unfolded before the stunned Berlin crowd: Zidane, inexplicably, head-butted Materazzi after an exchange of words, sending the Italian crashing to the ground.
What did Materazzi say to set off the usually sedate Zidane? Speculation would run rampant in the ensuing months, and to this day nobody knows for sure. What is certain is that the career of one of the game's all-time greats was over in an instant of pure madness: the Argentine referee showed Zidane a red card, and France was reduced to 10 men.
Neither team did much attacking in the final 10 minutes, as they seemed content to decide the matter via penalty shootout.
The two sides traded early goals, with Pirlo scoring for the Italians, and Sylvain Wiltord replying for the French. Materazzi strode up to the spot and drove a powerful shot past a diving Barthez to put Italy in front 2-1.
Then came another turning point - Trezeguet blasted his shot off the crossbar (he was the only French player to miss in the shootout) and the Italians suddenly had the upper hand.
Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Del Piero converted for Italy, while Eric Abidal and Willy Sagnol tallied to keep France alive.
Sitting on a 4-3 lead, Italy now had a chance to kill off the French and exact revenge for their capitulation in the Euro 2000 final. Fabio Grosso, the unheralded Palermo defender who proved to be the hero against Germany in the semifinals, calmly walked up to the spot and placed a perfect shot that flew by Barthez and bulged the back of the net.
"Campioni del mondo!"(Champions of the world!) Italian TV commentator Fabio Caressa screamed at the top of his lungs over and over again as Grosso was mobbed by his teammates. The Italian players then hugged each other and coach Marcelo Lippi before a makeshift stage was erected at centre field where Fabio Cannavaro was presented the World Cup trophy and he held it aloft for the world to see.
The Italians secured their fourth World Cup crown and moved closer to matching Brazil's all-time record of five by finally slaying their demons - after being eliminated via the penalty shootout at three of the four previous tournaments (1990 semifinals to Argentina, 1994 final to Brazil and 1998 quarter-finals to France), the Azzurri kept their nerves at bay and showed, when the pressure is on, that they could stand up and deliver.
Italy's victory in Germany was a testament to the value of teamwork, the Azzurri's success achieved through hard work and unwavering commitment.
Indeed, although the Italian side was loaded with world-class attacking stars, no player on the squad scored more than two goals. Instead, it was a World Cup won on the strength of balanced scoring (10 different players found the back of the net for Italy), midfield creativity (with Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings) and an impenetrable defence anchored by the incomparable Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
- For the first time since the 1982 World Cup in Spain, all six soccer confederations were represented at the tournament. All four semi-finalists were from Europe (Italy, Germany, France and Portugal), resulting in only the fourth an all-European final four in World Cup history (1934, 1966 and 1982).
- Since 1982 when the World Cup was increased to 24 teams from 16, only five different nations have appeared in the tournament final: Germany (four times), Brazil (three), Italy (three), Argentina (two) and France (two).
- Only four players have scored in two World Cup final matches: Vava of Brazil (1958 and 1962), Pele of Brazil (1958 and 1970), West Germany's Paul Breitner (1974 and 1982) and France's Zinedine Zidane (1998 and 2006).
- Marcus Allback's goal for Sweden in a 2-2 draw with England in the first round was the 2000th goal scored in World Cup history.
- Germany's Miroslav Klose claimed the Golden Shoe award as the competition's top scorer with five goals. It was the lowest number of goals scored by a tournament's top goal-scorer since six players tied with four goals each in 1962 in Chile.
- Allesandro Del Piero's goal in the 121st minute in Italy's 2-0 win over Germany in the semifinals was the latest goal scored in a World Cup game.
- Brazil holds the record for most consecutive wins in World Cup history with 11 (2002 to 2006).