On 3rd July 1998 in Stade de France in Saint Denis, the first World Cup ’98 quarter final was played between the hosts, France, and Italy. It was an encounter that would be ultimately be remembered for the Luigi Di Biagio penalty that smashed against the bar to end Italy’s campaign.
Italy escaped a group that was tighter than it perhaps should have been. A late Roberto Baggio penalty rescued a 2-2 draw against Chile before Cameroon were despatched with relative ease. Then an 89th minute goal against Austria, again from Baggio, proved to be just enough to sneak past Austria and emerge as group winners – crucially avoiding Brazil in the second round. Norway awaited the Azzurri in the second round. Italy, again, sneaking through with a typically bullish goal from Christian Vieri and also calling on a magnificent save from Gianluca Pagliuca.
They walked through their group, winning all of their games against: Denmark, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. They would face Paraguay in the 2nd round game. The French beat Paraguay with the first ever Golden Goal™. It should never have come to that, though, as the French peppered the opposition goal for almost the entire game. Henry hit the post, Trezeguet and Djourkaeff fired narrowly wide, the Paraguayan defence threw their bodies at shots and Jose Luis Chilavert made save after save. Laurent Blanc pounced late on to poke home and take Les Bleus through to the Quarter Finals.
“France at the turn of the century were as admired and feared as Spain are today … Indeed, the scariest part for everyone else was the strength in depth. If Zidane was not there, never mind, Robert Pires, Youri Djourkaeff or Johan Micoud could assume creative duties. If Thierry Henry got injured, David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka or Sylvain Wiltord would score the goals. If Deschamps decided to call it a day, Patrick Vieira would step in to partner Emmanuel Petit in midfield.”
Matt Spiro, The Blizzard
The game was tense, but there were plenty of chances for both sides. A France corner saw Emmanuel Petit with a looping overhead that Pagliuca had to stretch to paw over the bar. Christian Vieri tries to pounce on a loose ball before Barthez can gobble it up, but the French ‘keeper got there first and ends up with a face-full of Vieri’s boot. Djourkaeff spins away from his marker into space in the 18 yard area but fires narrowly wide.
The referee blows for full time, scoreless. In extra time the tension unbearable, but both teams go for it. Thierry Henry falls under a challenge as he dribbled through the Italian half, goring Fabio Cannavaro to the floor in the process. Baggio stretched desperately to head the ball at the far post, but all this to no avail. Extra time ended scoreless and they would go to the ‘lottery’ of the penalty shoot-out.
The penalties are fairly routine. Zidane and Baggio scored, respectively, for their sides. Lizarazu and Albertini both had their spot kicks saved. Trezeguet, Costacurta, Henry and Vieri also converted their kicks – Deschamp motioned vigorously to Barthez to indicate where Vieri was going to kick, but it could have been misunderstood as a slightly more X-rated gesture.
Laurent Blanc made no mistakes with the final kick, and then Di Biagio stepped up to take the fifth penalty. Di Biagio said “I said yes straight away, as soon as Maldini asked if I wanted to take one” Di Biagio walked alone from the centre circle towards the penalty spot before attending to a bit of gardening around the spot and placing the ball. He had decided where he would take the kick “before arriving at the spot. I had decided to hit it hard, straight and just under the bar”
Di Biagio took a step back, and the referee blew his whistle. Without looking at the goal, or Barthez, he took one step planting his left foot a few inches ahead of the ball and swung with his right. The ball was hit with his laces and there was no follow through, Barthez had already dived desperately to his left. The ball, though, smashed against the bar. The stadium erupted and Di Biagio fell backwards in a crumpled heap. The French celebrated as he lay on his back with his head in his hands – the crossbar continued to tremble.
Speaking to Sky Italia, twelve years later, he spoke of what he remembered and felt in the immediate aftermath:
“I have a void. I don’t remember anything. Just hitting the bar and then the tremendous roar … It’s paradoxical, but the moments afterwards I have reconstructed by reviewing the pictures on TV afterwards. It’s strange: my memories are linked more to the TV pictures than what I saw through my own eyes”
Di Biagio would later miss the next spot kick he took in a Serie A game for Roma against Empoli. Italy had been knocked out of the World Cup on penalties for the third time in succession. France were through to the semi finals, and would eventually win the trophy but for me it would be the start of a personal rivalry with the French football team.
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