Italy's hopes of following up on their run to the 1994 FIFA World Cup final were dealt a savage blow as the Czech Republic capitalised on Luigi Apolloni's first-half dismissal.
Pavel Nedvěd gave the Czechs a dream start to help forget their 2-0 defeat by Germany five days earlier, yet Enrico Chiesa restored parity for the Azzurri. But soon after Apolloni's moment of madness Radek Bejbl restored his side's advantage, which they clung on to despite a bold second-half onslaught from Arrigo Sacchi's men.
With Italy having completed a 2-1 opening match defeat of Russia, Sacchi opted to rest four players with an eye on tougher hurdles to come. Out went Alessandro Del Piero, Angelo Di Livio, Gianfranco Zola and Pierluigi Casiraghi, scorer of both goals against Russia; in came Fabrizio Ravanelli, Chiesa, Roberto Donadoni and Dino Baggio.
Sacchi soon had cause to question his wisdom when Karel Poborský's searching cross from the right provided Nedvěd, 23, with his first international goal. That said, Petr Kouba had already been called upon to deny Chiesa, and the equaliser arrived on 18 minutes; it was a classic Italy break, culminating in Chiesa dispatching Diego Fuser's pass with a low finish.
Yet the match, and Italy's tournament, turned on Apolloni's aberration. Already in the book for a trip on Pavel Kuka, the Parma FC defender went through the back of the striker deep into the Czech half and was shown a second yellow card. The setback was soon compounded by Bejbl, meeting Kuka's cross from the right with a well-directed volley.
Italy had a mountain to climb and, creditably, almost scaled it, dominating the second period against numerically superior opponents. Chiesa and Casiraghi both forced fine saves from Kouba and the Azzurri almost equalised at the death when Casiraghi controlled Zola's pass on his chest and turned his marker only to blaze over. He fell on his back holding his face; Zola knelt in despair: it was the third minute of added time.