With four FIFA World Cup victories, Italy has produced some of the finest players to grace the game. Giuseppe Meazza, Valentino & Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera, Giacinto Facchetti, Gigi Riva, Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile, Paolo Rossi, Gaetano Scirea, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro del Piero, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta: the list is endless.
Whilst many correctly note defenders as being the strongest players to feature for Gli Azzurri, goalkeeper is another position Italy has excelled at. Enrico Albertosi, Dino Zoff, Giovanni Galli, Walter Zenga, Gianluca Pagliuca and perhaps the best of all, Gianluigi Buffon, have ensured a continuous supply of high-quality custodians between the sticks. Some would argue the latter is even the best goalkeeper ever.
From his debut aged 19 in November 1997 to his retirement from national team duty in 2018, Buffon’s excellence throughout his 176 international caps forced many a fine Italian keeper into the role of eternal back-up. Angelo Peruzzi is the most often cited. And yet, another man emerged at this time and proved his worth as a terrific and underrated custodian: Francesco Toldo.
Tough beginnings in Milan and stardom in Florence
Francesco Toldo was born on 2 December 1971 in the city of Padua in Italy’s north-eastern Veneto region. After impressing in the youth team of local club Calcio Montebelluna, 15-year-old Toldo made the move to AC Milan. Backed by billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi and under the guidance of first Arrigo Sacchi and then Fabio Capello, I Rossoneri began to dominate both Italian and European football.
However, breaking into such a Milan team was quite a challenge. All in front of Toldo in the pecking order were Andrea Pazzagli, Francesco Antonioli, the aforementioned Galli and Sebastiano Rossi. In 1990/91, aged 18, Toldo went out on loan to Serie B outfit Hellas Verona.
However, he was unable to break into their first team and spent the next two campaigns on loan at Trento and Ravenna in the Italian third tier. These two loans between 1991 and 1993 gave Toldo a total of 69 first-team games and improved his game considerably.
Faced with such competition upon returning to Milan though, Toldo had to move on in the summer of 1993. Fortunately, an excellent opportunity presented itself. AC Fiorentina had been relegated to Serie B at the end of the 1992/93 season and they needed a new number one goalkeeper.
Toldo signed for the Florence outfit on a permanent transfer, subsequently making 33 appearances as a regular in 1993/94 as the Tuscans won promotion back to Serie A after just a one-season hiatus.
Between 1994 and 2001, Toldo matured into one of Serie A’s greatest goalkeepers. His rise coincided with that of Fiorentina’s, as under Claudio Ranieri and then Giovanni Trappatoni they became one of Italian football’s strongest sides. His great strengths were his reflexes, enabling him to react quickly to hard and fast shots, spectacular one-handed saves whilst diving backwards and saving penalties.
La Viola’s hierarchy backed both Ranieri and Trappatoni in the transfer market in an attempt to bring a first Serie A title since 1968/69 to Florence. Such signings alongside Toldo included Marcio Santos, Cristiano Zanetti, Edmundo, Moreno Torricelli, Angelo di Livio, Enrico Chiesa and Rui Costa. Even prior to all these arrivals, Fiorentina already possessed legendary Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta, one of Serie A’s best ever players.
Fiorentina won two Coppa Italias in 1995/96 and 2000/01, made a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup semi final in 1996/97 and finished 4th, 5th and 3rd in Serie A in 1995/96, 1997/98 and 1998/99 respectively. However, a Serie A title proved elusive. La Viola led the way for much of 1998/99, topping the table for 18 out of 34 matchdays, but a late season slump saw them eventually finish 3rd.
For Toldo, the failure to capture a Serie A title was one of several near-misses endured by the talented keeper throughout his early and peak years. Had Fiorentina played in many of Europe’s other top leagues at the time, La Viola could have emerged triumphant. However, competition for trophies in Italy at this time was immense.
Fiorentina didn’t just have Italian football’s big three of Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan to contend with; Roman rivals SS Lazio and AS Roma, as well as Parma, also possessed impressive squads. These six sides alongside Fiorentina comprised Italian football’s ‘Seven Sisters’ in arguably the greatest ever period in Serie A’s history.
Toldo to Inter: A continuous high level, yet more disappointing near misses
After Fiorentina’s Coppa Italia triumph in 2000/01, the stark reality of their financial problems dawned. Failure to frequently qualify for the Champions League ballooned the club’s debts and threatened with extinction, they were forced to sell prized assets. Batistuta had departed the previous summer to AS Roma where he won Serie A. Rui Costa continued the exodus, departing for AC Milan for over €40 million.
Now 29, Toldo was in demand and it sparked what one could say was a summer of four goalkeepers in Italian football. Fiorentina had initially agreed to sell Toldo to Serie A rivals Parma. However, Toldo was reportedly unhappy as he had reportedly also agreed personal terms with FC Barcelona at the same time.
In the end Toldo joined neither, signing instead for Inter Milan for €26.5 million. Toldo reportedly opted for Inter as he was reportedly unkeen on following in Buffon’s footsteps at Parma.
Buffon by this time was the world’s most in-demand goalkeeper and famously joined Juventus from Parma for over €50 million. Juve’s Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar, now staggeringly surplus to requirements in Turin, opted to join ambitious newly promoted Premier League side Fulham for €10.3 million.
Meanwhile Parma, who lost Buffon and missed out on Toldo, solved their goalkeeping problems by signing young Frenchman Sebastien Frey, himself vacating the number one keeper spot at Inter for Toldo.
Prior to the start of the 2001/02 season, many considered Inter Scudetto favourites. Owner Massimo Moratti had signed Héctor Cúper – who had led Valencia to consecutive Champions League final losses – as I Nerazzurri’s new manager. In addition to Toldo, Inter also signed Sérgio Conceição, Mohammed Kallon, Cristiano Zanetti, Marco Materazzi and Emre Belözoğlu.
In 15 matchdays out of 34 that Serie A campaign, Inter led the standings, most notably after the penultimate fixture, a 3-1 home victory against Piacenza. The stage was set for Cúper, Toldo and Inter. Victory in their final game against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, would seal a first Serie A triumph in 13 years for Nerazzurri.
Given close links between Lazio and Inter and a mutual dislike of both Juventus and Roma, the other two sides in the title race, many a Lazio supporter may in secret have cheered for an Inter title triumph. However, Lazio shocked Inter 4-2, which coupled with wins for Juventus and Roma dropped Inter down to 3rd in the final standings. As Juve celebrated their 26th title, Inter were left to rue another all too familiar choke.
Agonisingly for Toldo, Inter’s habit of near misses continued. In the 2002/03 Champions League, a competition Inter had not won since 1964/65, a victory against Cúper’s old side Valencia in the quarter finals on away goals set up a semi final against fierce rivals AC Milan.
After a goalless first leg, the second leg – in which AC Milan were designated as the away team – finished 1-1 and I Rossoneri progressed to the final. It further summed up years of Inter frustration, knocked out of the Champions League on away goals in their home stadium.
Euro 2000: Toldo’s big chance, so near and yet so far
Toldo’s fine form domestically for Fiorentina did not go unnoticed by Italy national team coach Arrigo Sacchi. He gave Toldo his debut for Gli Azzurri in a 1-1 draw away to Croatia in a UEFA Euro 96 qualifier in October 1995 aged 23.
Toldo served as back-up to first Angelo Peruzzi at Euro 96 and Gianluca Pagliuca at the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Toldo may not have even made the 1998 World Cup squad had it not been for a pre-tournament injury to Peruzzi.
Prior to the start of Euro 2000, Toldo was only set to be back-up for a third consecutive tournament with Gianluigi Buffon and Angelo Peruzzi both tipped to battle for the number one goalkeeping position under Azzurri coach Dino Zoff.
However, circumstances dealt Toldo a lucky hand. Upon hearing news pre-Euro 2000 that then 22-year-old Buffon was selected ahead of him as number one keeper, 30-year-old Peruzzi walked out of the squad. Toldo was now second choice.
Then, in a pre-tournament friendly 1-0 loss against Norway, Buffon had to be substituted with an injury. Post-game it was revealed Buffon had sustained a broken hand ruling him out of Euro 2000. Toldo was therefore assigned as number one keeper for the tournament.
Italy recorded three wins out of three in the groups and a 2-0 win over Romania in the quarter finals to set up a semi final against co-hosts the Netherlands. Of all of the 29 caps Toldo won for Italy, this semi-final triumph over the Netherlands goes down as his finest day in an Azzurri shirt.
Just 34 minutes into the game, Italian wing-back Gianluca Zambrotta was shown a second yellow card and Italy were down to 10 men. A mere five minutes later the Netherlands won a penalty which captain Frank de Boer took, yet Toldo made a fine diving save to his left to deny him. After dominating following Zambrotta’s expulsion, on 62 minutes the Netherlands were awarded a second penalty. Patrick Kluivert stepped up, yet incredibly hit the post.
It should have been a hint of things to come. The match finished 0-0 after extra time and went to penalty kicks. Italy prevailed 3-1 in the shootout to reach the final against France. Toldo proved a decisive figure, just like in regulation time, saving from both de Boer again and Paul Bosvelt to seal Azzurri’s place in the final.
In the final Toldo and his defence put in a defensive masterclass to keep Les Bleus at bay and on 55 minutes they got their reward. A fine back-heel by Francesco Totti found right wing-back Gianluca Pessotto. His cross found striker Marco Delvecchio in the box to stab the ball into the net.
Not so long after Delvecchio’s goal, Toldo twice saved from Sylvain Wiltord and Thierry Henry at his near post. Just prior to the end of regulation time, Toldo superbly denied substitute David Trézéguet with a diving save low at his near post. Victory was just seconds away.
However, late on, the Italian defence and Toldo who had previously been flawless made fatal errors. In the final minute of time added on Trézéguet won a flick-on. As the ball dropped, it should have been a routine clearance for Paolo Maldini.
However, Maldini’s poor clearing header was seized upon by Sylvain Wiltord who fired a shot at goal. Toldo dived, but did not get a strong enough hand on the ball and it fizzed into the back of the net. Immediately, Toldo put his head in his hands. It was a shot he should have saved.
France needed no second invitation; extra time was one-way traffic, and Les Bleus’ dominance told. On 103 minutes, Thierry Henry swung in a cross and Trézéguet fired home a golden goal which gifted France the title. For Toldo and Italy, it was a classic case of so near, yet so far.
One felt for Toldo. Unlike Cannavaro, Nesta, and Del Piero who would go on to play in further international tournaments and win a World Cup in 2006, Toldo would have to make way for Buffon when he returned from injury. This would be his only international tournament as a regular starter.
Dependable backup to Júlio César and long-awaited trophies
By 2005/06, Toldo, who had been a regular at Inter for four seasons, saw competition emerge from Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César. Inter’s new manager Roberto Mancini benched Toldo in favour of César at the start of the campaign. After a poor run of form, César was benched mid-season and Toldo was back in as number one for seven Serie A games and five in the UEFA Champions League.
Going into the following season, Mancini had to decide between the two. César, eight years Toldo’s junior, won the decision. Despite Toldo losing his place for regular league matches though, trophies, something that previously eluded him, began to flow in.
All in all Toldo claimed four Serie A triumphs between 2005/06 and 2008/09, (he didn’t qualify for a medal due to a lack of appearances in his final season in 2009/10), three Coppa Italia victories in 2004/05, 2005/06 and 2009/10 and a Champions League final triumph in 2009/10, despite not making an appearance in the competition.
It could be argued the Serie A titles felt a little hollow given they were won as a back-up. In addition, those won up until the arrival of José Mourinho as coach in 2008 were won due to being reassigned (2004/05), Juventus having lost many stars as a result of Calciopoli (2007/08) and Juve spending a season in Serie B after relegation as punishment for Calciopoli (2006/07).
After losing his place to César, many thought Toldo should have left Inter and sought first-team football elsewhere. However, given all of the near misses he endured, one could understand his decision to play out his career at Inter as back-up.
At his age, when trophies emerge, it is difficult for any player to refuse this. In addition, in his mid-30s when losing his starting place, Toldo perhaps would have struggled to find suitors who would have wanted a more long-term goalkeeping option.
The fortune and timing of Francesco Toldo
Whilst not at the level of Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Toldo was nonetheless one of European football’s most underrated goalkeepers between the mid-1990s and mid 2000s. A reliable performer at his clubs, Toldo also impressed when given rare opportunities with the Italian national team.
Many a player had more international caps than Toldo, yet it is likely many did not have the misfortune of having to displace arguably the greatest player of his position and generation in Buffon. Had Toldo held another nationality at the time, he could have been pushing between 75 to 100 international caps.
Even when Buffon was unavailable through injury at Euro 2000, one noticed very little drop in terms of Italy’s quality in goal with Toldo between the sticks. That paid testament to his ability as a dependable deputy to Buffon’s brilliance.