BORDEAUX, France – Germany ended 54 years of misery against Italy at major tournaments by taking a familiar route to victory: The penalty shootout.
Jonas Hector lifted the so-called “Italian curse” off Germany on Saturday by converting the 18th kick of one of the wildest shootouts in European Championship history, clinching a 6-5 victory and a place in the semifinals.
“I took my heart in my hand,” said Hector, Germany’s left back, “and just wanted to make sure it went in.”
It did — but only just. Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon guessed the right way but dived over Hector’s kick. No wonder the 38-year-old Buffon walked off the field in tears afterward.
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A cagey match between Europe’s two most successful soccer nations finished 1-1 after extra time, with Leonardo Bonucci’s 78th-minute penalty for Italy cancelling out a 65th-minute strike by Mesut Ozil.
After the tactical tedium came the shootout drama. Bonucci was one of seven players to fail to score in the shootout, with Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger also blazing over when he could have sealed victory with the score at 2-2.
Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer gave his side another sight of victory by saving Matteo Darmian’s penalty, and Hector held his nerve.
“I’ve never experienced a penalty shootout like it before,” Neuer said.
It was Germany’s sixth straight victory in a penalty shootout since losing the final of Euro 1976 to Czechoslovakia, and its first competitive win over Italy in nine tries dating back to 1962. That run included defeats to the Azzurri in the 1982 World Cup final and three major tournament semifinals — at World Cups in 1970 and 2006, and at Euro 2012.
Seeking to follow up its World Cup title from two years ago, Germany will play either France or Iceland in a semifinal match in Marseille on Thursday.
Italy’s loss ended Antonio Conte’s two-year tenure as coach and he heads to Chelsea in the English Premier League with a strong reputation after masterminding wins over highly fancied Belgium and Spain at Euro 2016.
“The only regret I have from this European Championship is these penalties,” Conte said. “Nothing else; no regrets. These lads really showed everything.”
One of his last acts as Italy coach was to embrace Darmian, who collapsed to the ground in despair after seeing Hector convert his penalty.
It was a fixture worthy of the final itself — Italy and Germany have won eight World Cup titles between them — but the game didn’t live up to its promise.
Dropping deep when not in possession, Italy’s defensive set-up stifled the Germans — another tactical success for Conte — and made for a contest of few clear-cut chances until Ozil’s goal.
Hector ran onto Mario Gomez’s inside pass and sent over a cross that deflected into the path of the inrushing Arsenal playmaker, who calmly steered the ball home from eight meters.
It was the first time the Germans had got behind Italy’s famed back line all game, but they couldn’t hold on. They finally conceded a goal at the tournament when Bonucci scored from the spot after Jerome Boateng handled Giorgio Chiellini’s flicked header.
Bonucci was a surprising choice as penalty-taker, considering he hadn’t previously taken one in regulation time in his career.
With both teams tiring and showing respect for each other, extra time passed without significant incident and Euro 2016 had its second penalty shootout of the quarterfinals — after Portugal beat Poland on Thursday.
As Germany, as ever, won the battle of nerves from the spot.
“It was the lottery of the shootout,” Conte said. “I think they’re the best side in the world. The fact we could match them is an achievement.”
Mats Hummels will miss the semifinal through suspension after collecting a second yellow card of the tournament.