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Dare More Boldly

We all do it. Whether a player, a coach or a manager. Despite the best of intentions, of pre-game plans to be aggressive and relentless from start to finish, we hold back. Having gained a lead, or in a potentially winning position, too often we become cautious and reactive. Consciously or subconsciously start clock watching, scoreboard watching. Doubt ourselves, hesitate, become risk averse, worry about mistakes.

Fearful of what might happen, we play not to lose.

Much better is the opposite approach. Of positivity, of taking calculated risks, of operating without fear of failure.

Flash back to July 4, 2006. Sixteen years ago, to this very day. The FIFA (Soccer) World Cup reaches the semifinal stage. In a hugely anticipated final four matchup, Germany meets European rival Italy.

The game, held before a partisan crowd of 65,000 in the industrial city of Dortmund, plays out against a controversial backdrop. Allegations of bribery and corruption continue to dog the successful German bid to host the prestigious tournament. At the same time, the pall of a serious match fixing scandal hovers over Serie A, the top Italian club competition, and a good number of its players.

Regardless, 8000km and eight time zones away, from the west coast of Canada I watch on TV. Glued to the proceedings. With the passage of time, no doubt some of the details are a bit hazy, though many I recall with cast iron certainty. Indeed, what transpires is one of the sport’s greatest ever games, a feverish, thrilling, brilliant encounter.

90 minutes pass in the blink of an eye, an incessant, intense, back and forth contest between two of soccer’s most dominant and powerful nations. The atmosphere is electric throughout. Both sides rue missed chances. However, as regulation time winds down, still without a single goal, the tenacious, super fit Germans seem favourites to advance. By way of contrast, the Italians, even allowing for their innate skill and rock solid defense, appear to be running on fumes.

Extra time looms.

Still, no one can anticipate that the classic match is about to go up another level. To gain legendary status. All due to a somewhat unexpected but extremely brave decision by the Italian manager, Marcello Lippi.

Perhaps he is mindful of the fact the German national team has never suffered defeat in Dortmund. Absolutely, he is aware that “Die Mannschaft” always seems to emerge on top in penalty shootouts. As a result, Lippi boldly changes formation during the overtime by replacing two midfielders with two forwards. The Azzurri, in effect now featuring four strikers, regain energy and impetus. Swing back to the offensive.

To his eternal credit, Lippi is not prepared to chance a penalty kick lottery. Like a poker maestro, he pushes all his chips to the middle of the table. He is playing to win.

The momentum of the game changes abruptly. While Italian goalie Buffon sensationally deflects German striker Podolski’s left foot rocket, the home side is saved, not once but twice, by the woodwork. First, a rolling ball from a tight angle clips the base of the post. Next, a vicious Azzurri strike from the edge of the penalty area crashes off the crossbar.

As the clock ticks toward the end of the second extra session, a dreaded penalty shootout appears unavoidable. Even the commentators lament the scoreless encounter, beginning instead to discuss possible spot kick strategies.

But then, in the 118th minute, it happens.

Yet another Italian foray forces a corner kick. The resulting clearance falls to Pirlo at the top of the 18 yard box. He controls, surveys, considers shooting, then slips a sublime pass through to Fabio Grosso. The defender, initially only at the tournament as a reserve, curls a left foot shot beyond the despairing German keeper and inside the far post. In one magic moment, Grosso writes his name forever in World Cup lore.

A last chance remains for Germany to draw level. Yet, once again, the imperious defender Cannavaro thwarts the attack. With a final flourish, he then steals the ball, starts a counter which produces a clinching Italian goal in the dying seconds of the match. Final score 2-0.

For Germany and its adoring fans, absolute heartbreak and despair. For Italy, equal parts joy and exhilaration. Five days later, Lippi and the players ride a similar emotional rollercoaster, defeating France in the tournament final. This victory, ironically via a shootout, secures the World Cup title, to match those won in 1934, 1938, and 1982.

Still, of the four, the 2006 triumph is far and away the most dramatic and exciting. For this, Lippi may take considerable credit. Adaptability, key tactical changes, flexibility, vision and courage are the hallmarks of all successful performers. In the semi-final in particular, under maximum pressure, Lippi displays them in spades.

Not for him and his team a careful, conservative approach. Not for him to die wondering “what if.” Instead, he shows he is not afraid to mount a charge, to press forward, to risk everything when it counts most, despite the high stakes.

Perhaps, in this regard at least, Lippi shares some parallels with Sir Francis Drake. Among a number of legendary exploits, the 16th century English sea captain circumnavigates the globe, gains a knighthood, and helps defeat the Spanish Armada.

Drake certainly never fears what might lie on or over the horizon. Rather, he champions his charges to "dare more boldly." That "where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars."


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