On the eve of today’s finely poised finale, the two finalists’ news conferences were a clash of styles that offered a glimpse of the game that is to come. The dark-horse Italians were loose and relaxed, throwing open their entire training session to the media, and even dispatching players to mingle with the press.
Defending champion Spain, one victory away from becoming the first nation to win three major football tournaments in succession, was taut, professional and focused. As much as they talked about attempting to enjoy the experience, La Roja’s demeanor belied the fact. Clipped and obtuse, their comments gave little away.
Self-possessed Italian coach Cesare Prandelli appeared stress-free. He has taken an unfancied team tarred by a severe domestic match-fixing scandal to the brink of glory. In June, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti considered forbidding the team from competing in the tournament. Yesterday, as the general manager of the team revealed Italian President Giorgio Napolitano had sent Prandelli a congratulatory letter, the manager visibly swelled with pride.
The two opponents met exactly three weeks ago in Gdansk for their opening group game. To stifle the Spanish midfield, Prandelli fielded an untested 3-5-2 formation, gleaning a 1-1 tie. He has since adjusted to a more ambitious midfield diamond that was able to dictate the tempo of Italy's 2-1 win over the potent Germans.
When asked if he would revert to the strategy that Spain had found so difficult to break down in the first game, Prandelli removed any lingering tactical suspense. “Quite frankly, no,” he admitted, “because over the past few games we have had a lot of balance in the side. But over the course of the game we can switch to that system and have three at the back.”
The Italian coach was realistic about the kind of game he envisages. "We don't expect to be in charge from the first to the last minute," Prandelli said, "but we will pick our moments when we have a numerical superiority at the right end of the pitch.”
His opposite number, the taciturn Vicente Del Bosque, was far more cagey. The Spanish campaign has been dogged by a lack of cutting edge. The team has flip-flopped between a rotating cast of unreliable strikers, or playing without one in a tactically avant-garde “false nine” formation. When asked to reveal his plans, Del Bosque broke into a smile and answered cryptically, “We will play with three attackers, that is for sure. There will be three men in the front who are responsible for attacking. Each member of the team has his own mission.”
Spanish “Kremlinologists” parsed Del Bosque’s comments to suggest Spain will start without a recognized striker, fielding Cesc Fabregas, or even Pedro, whose direct running changed the flow of the semifinal against Portugal. Expect Jesus Navas or Fernando Torres to come off the bench as an impact substitute.
The true stars of the news conferences were the team captains. Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas, two of the greatest goalkeepers ever to play the game, and as much a contrast of styles off the field as they are on it. Oaky of voice, Buffon is an animated, almost cartoonish character, grinning, eye-rolling and making faces in between questions. In comparison, Casillas is soft-spoken, modest and reflective.
Del Bosque captured the enormity of their contributions to their respective teams. “They are both extraordinary leaders,” he said. “Iker has led by example for us ever since he was very young and Buffon is the same for Italy. They are both men of merit as sportsmen and people.”
Despite all the rumors [about match-fixing], Italians have a lot of love and respect for the Italian shirt. ... It is not always easy to show how great our country is, but we have a solid squad, and collective power is our strength. Gigi Buffon
Buffon is the ultimate perfectionist. Despite Italy’s victory in the semifinal, he still stormed off the field, maddened that his defenders’ late lapse of concentration handed Germany a consolation goal. Casillas gives his side the confidence that even when they make a rare mistake, he will be there, bucket and mop in hand to clean up the mess. In Spain's semifinal shootout against Portugal, no sooner had the normally reliable Xabi Alonso missed his penalty than Casillas flew to his right to parry Joao Moutinho’s shot and drag his team back on even terms.
When reminded of his comments that Italy could not win Euro 2012, which he uttered in frustration after his team’s unconvincing opening-round tie with Croatia, Buffon laughed. “I said we would not win it because there was a side that showed they are stronger than the rest and we are coming up against them tomorrow,” he said. “The best thing is, we will start 0-0.”
Buffon doubted the pressure of making history would impact his opponent. Even though Italy collapsed when defending its World Cup title in 2010, he explained, “I would be very happy and sure of myself if I could go into tomorrow’s final having won the previous tournament and the World Cup. These are emotions sportsmen have not experienced before and it will give [Spain] the edge because they have a winning mentality.”
La Gazzetta Sportiva leads today with the headline “INSIEME!” [Together”!], identifying the Italian’s collective sense of mission as the factor that has propelled them to the final. Buffon concurred, “I think there is something unique in the Italian mentality. Despite all the rumors [about match-fixing], Italians have a lot of love and respect for the Italian shirt that goes above and beyond our physical limitations. It is not always easy to show how great our country is, but we have a solid squad, and collective power is our strength.”
In Buffon’s mind, this collective power has even infused Mario Balotelli. “Mario has done very well,” Buffon said. “He has great natural talent and this is a wonderful starting point for him. But he has come in to a squad with a lot of star players and he has worked with a manager who has been able to get the most out of him, so the coach should get most of the credit for this. And credit should also go to the rest of the squad.”
There have been few more emotional sights at Euro 2012 than Buffon bellowing the national anthem, eyes closed, seemingly overwhelmed with passion. The Italian captain revealed what goes through his mind at that time. “I become very emotional when I sing because the Italian national side means so much to me. I lost two great grandparents in the war and this is a sign of the recognition I have for how much they mean to me.”
Buffon expressed a deep respect for his opponent in general, and Casillas in particular. In evaluating the Spaniard he fears most, Buffon went right to Casillas, despite the goalkeeper being the one Spanish player who will not shoot at him. "He is a terrific keeper, I have so much respect for," he said.
On the eve of becoming the first man to captain a team to three consecutive tournament victories, Casillas admitted that Euro 2012 has felt very different to the team’s previous triumphs because it has now experienced success. “When we reached the final four years ago and the 2010 World Cup, we did not imagine we could win because we had not done so before,” Casillas said.
Sitting by Xavi, Casillas portrayed Spain’s unprecedented four-year cycle as the product of years of hard work. “We started 15 years ago [playing] together for the under-16s and all the teams since then,” he said. Despite this depth of experience and familiarity, he saw the final as evenly balanced. “Italy are a great side,” Casillas concluded. “It is no surprise they are in the final. They have a strong squad and play their own way.”
Leaning into his microphone, Casillas added softly, “We don’t believe we are favorites. I think we are equals.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.