A week into the 2000 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, and Andrea Pirlo was more a villain than a hero. An opening-day penalty against England bode well but the good work was swiftly undone two days later when Italy's 'fantasista' was sent off in the draw with hosts Slovakia. His team-mates progressed without him to the final, when Pirlo returned to the side looking to make amends – he did so in style.
Azzurrini coach Claudio Gentile made no secret of the importance of the then FC Internazionale Milano midfielder in the lead up to the finals. The 21-year-old had just enjoyed his breakthrough season on loan at Reggina Calcio, and while in Gennaro Gattuso, Christian Abbiati, Cristiano Zanetti and Francesco Coco Italy's squad contained plenty of talent, they were workmanlike rather than inspirational. Pirlo was the exception. He gave glimpse of his guile against England, though the Slovakia aberration left him seeking atonement in the final against a strong Czech Republic side.
"I had to repay my team-mates who did not say anything to me when I was sent off," Pirlo recalled, and in an entertaining, evenly-balanced match in Bratislava, he was the difference between the sides. Italy's No10 broke the deadlock from the spot just before half-time and, after Tomáš Došek equalised shortly after the restart, he really showed his worth. With time ebbing away the Azzurrini won a free-kick just outside the area and Pirlo stepped up, sending a brilliant curling effort into the top corner to seal his country's fourth title in five attempts.
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