False memories are a known psychological phenomenon. Sometimes, when we think back on past events, we remember incorrect details with certainty, our brains blending truth and untruth: things we witnessed first-hand with stories we have been told since.
Is it still right to call the memory false, though, if we have deliberately allowed it to be distorted in this way? I know I watched Italy’s 2006 World Cup semi-final win over Germany on ITV, on a shared television in temporary halls of residence at Highbury College in Portsmouth. I was studying for my NCTJ journalism qualifications and we had been booted out of our previous accommodation due to a double-booking right before starting our exams.
Yet when I think back on Fabio Grosso’s extra-time goal, it is not the voice of Clive Tyldesley I hear. Instead, the backing track is Fabio Caressa of Italy’s Sky Sport, screaming himself hoarse. “The ball is cut out. It’s Pirlo, Pirlo, Pirlo, still Pirlo, heel, shot … GOOOOAL! GOOOOAL! GOOOOAL! Grosso! Grosso! GOOOOAL! Goal from Grosso! Goal from Grosso! Goal from Grosso! One minute left!”
There is no clever wordplay, no crafted metaphor or iconic line. Yet Caressa’s commentary was perfection because it captured the moment so absolutely. He was exhausted and exhilarated, running on fumes and emotion. So was Grosso, as he wheeled away screaming “I can’t believe it” – his outstretched arms and shaking head evoking memories of Marco Tardelli24 years before.
So, frankly, were the rest of us. These had been 119 of the most intense World Cup minutes: a relentless back-and-forth between two of the sport’s foremost nations. The game remained deadlocked only because Lukas Podolski couldn’t beat Gianluigi Buffon at the end of a five-on-five, while Alberto Gilardino and Gianluca Zambrotta hit the woodwork of a goal they concluded to be cursed.
By the time Italy scored, they had four centre-forwards on the pitch. Marcello Lippi sent on Vincenzo Iaquinta to replace one winger at the start of extra time and then Alessandro Del Piero for the other in the 104th minute. Gilardino had already come on for Luca Toni in a like-for-like swap, while Francesco Totti played the full duration. So, of course, the stalemate had to be broken by a left-back.
Grosso had originally been brought to the tournament as a reserve. He was in the middle of a respectable but unremarkable career before choosing this moment – followed up with a winning penalty at the end of the shootout in the final – to write his name for ever into World Cup lore.
His shot was curled on an unstoppable trajectory round the despairing dive of Jens Lehmann but Grosso never sought to claim it as some moment of nerveless skill. “I tried to hit the ball with whatever strength I had left,” he said. “Then, it went how it went.”
There was genuine artistry in the assist from Pirlo, seizing the ball after it was headed clear from a corner. His first thought was to shoot, but with three defenders closing in on his touch he released Grosso instead using a no-look pass. “He always used to tell me to ‘just go’,” said the full-back. “He would say: ‘I’ll find a way to see you.’”
The epilogue was almost as perfect. Not long after the restart, Fabio Cannavaro intercepted a cross and charged forward with inexplicable energy to win the ball again from Podolski 10 yards ahead. Italy broke and Gilardino demonstrated impressive cool of his own to cut a reverse pass for Del Piero, who beat Lehmann.
As an Italian, it was perfect: 118 minutes of suffering all made worthwhile by the last two. A win, a place in the World Cup final, another excuse to dance around to Seven Nation Army in that summer when it had become our song and not yet just another generic stadium tune.
In Portsmouth, a group of Italian schoolkids spilled out of a neighbouring hall of residence – where they were staying while doing a language course. I leaned out the window and cheered with them. Later, I – and no doubt they – would watch back on YouTube with Caressa’s commentary, enhancing the memory with every view.