Several years ago, I wrote an article for ESPN explaining how Italian football is at its best from the kick-off until the final whistle. The best part, very often, is what you see out there on the pitch, and the best characters are those wearing a football shirt, and they are the best characters because of what they do during a match.
Everything else – the rotten state of grounds and sometimes the poor sporting culture of those who sit or stand in them, the unreliable owners and chairmen, the media, the match-fixing scandals that seem to plague it every other year – is best ignored, or kept at an arm’s length, lest it get in the way and spoil the show.
What constitutes “Italian football”, though, can be debated. The Azzurri being, after their fifth match at Euro 2012, perhaps the best side of the tournament in terms of entertainment, once they finally showed they can turn chances into goals, does not translate into a sudden improvement of the state of the game, just as going out in the first round of the World Cup two years ago never meant that Serie A had been devalued.
It’s the same principle as can be applied to Champions League success: too much is made each year of results that sometimes depend upon a single goal or miss. General trends are more telling for the very reason that they are measured over a longer period of time than one or two campaigns.
Celebrating Italy’s great performances at Euro 2012 as a catharsis for the whole of Italian football, as some will inevitably do, would also unnecessarily take some attention away from the fantastic job Cesare Prandelli has done with the squad and in front of the media. The only blemish on his record has been his indulgence in excuse-making when he noted, right after the England game, that Germany had had two extra days’ rest, which actually did not appear to have any influence on the outcome of the semi-final.
Italy seemed fresher and were confident on Thursday; they held the ball when they had to and sprung forward when the circumstances allowed. Having an Andrea Pirlo, with quality assistance from Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, means you can pass the ball in tight spaces without giving it away, but the addition of another good passer in Riccardo Montolivo makes for a more effective creative force. It was the former Fiorentina midfielder’s 40-yard pass to Mario Balotelli that broke the game open, and this writer, a long-time fan of Montolivo’s composure and decency – even more so after reading constant, oblique criticism suggesting he is not a player who can elevate the play of his team-mates – broke into a smile while watching that.
As for Balotelli, the goals he scored showed his almost limitless potential, and were perhaps much more indicative of his class than the one he had against Ireland, which basically consisted of an easy – for a professional – volley while leaning on an opponent for balance. For his first in the semi-final, Balotelli positioned himself in anticipation of a cross as Antonio Cassano evaded Mats Hummels’ ill-timed attempt to dispossess him, and it played out exactly in that manner; for the second, his good control and powerful finish were also evidence of the kind of confidence Mario seems to have more as a player, even on his off days, than as a man thrown out to perform in front of thousands of people. The fact he celebrated the first goal, as opposed to pouting, will also endear him to those – this writer included – that have always been sceptical of his behaviour and never liked the easy passes he seems to have been given by his apologists.
Being a VIP has a way of allowing you to get away with almost anything you say, but those who praised his explanation for not celebrating goals (“When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?”) should have perhaps pointed out that postmen do not have to go past defenders and goalkeepers in order to deliver, and that’s why scoring goals is more difficult and should be celebrated in a much different way, without, hopefully, anything choreographed.
There is no doubt now, of course, that Balotelli will start on Sunday in a game that has already started creating a mixture of fear, expectation and hope. Believing, as some pundits already do, that Italy will not be underdogs for the final actually makes some sense, considering the way they played against Spain just 15 days ago in the group stage.
The attitude should be right, too, when you have a captain like Gigi Buffon, who after the semi-final refused to succumb to the joy of the occasion as he expressed anger at the way some of his team-mates appeared to lose focus in the final ten minutes of the game. As he told Rai: “If Germany had equalised, we’d have lost 9-2 in extra time.”
Buffon will make sure to remind the youngest members of the side you simply cannot relax against top sides like some of them started doing on Thursday, and will provide steady leadership throughout the days leading up to the final.
Mercifully, that Spain are the opponents instead of France, Germany or England will mean most clichés will have been used before the group game, and the worst excesses will be gone.
Anyone who keeps his head and balance in the best and worst of times, and believes decency and respect should still have a place on this planet, cannot have been anything but disappointed by some of the childish digs many in the mainstream media have been aiming at German chancellor Angela Merkel for her attitude during the current Euro crisis. Watching TV, listening to radio shows and leafing through some newspapers on Friday morning, it is obvious Mrs Merkel (one headline screamed the Italian equivalent of “bye bye, lard-arse”) stands out as easy target, a sort of cartoon villain. It is something you wish would not happen in a civilised country.
Once again, then, the Azzurri proved to be much better than some of those who attach their own fortunes and careers to them. They proved they can go places.
It would be hard, though, to match the frantic activity of their coach who, as he’d done once already in this tournament, walked seven miles from Italy’s camp to a monastery once the party had returned to their camp late on Thursday night. The surprise was not that Prandelli managed to do it again, but that, considering the architectural and religious nature of Poland, he had to travel that far to find such a building.© ESPN