That’s a tasty Euro Final coming on Sunday. A match-up for the soccer nuts, the purists and the casual viewer.
There is substance, history and stories galore underlying this Final. It was Spain’s victory, on penalties, over Italy in the quarter-final of Euro 2008 in Vienna, that finally freed Spain from the burden it carried. That burden was expectation never matched by achievement.
Spain had entered countless tournaments with players known to be their best in Europe. A few wins, a soft surrender and it was all over. On many occasions it was Italy that ended Spain’s campaign. And amazingly, Spain exited three major tournaments after a penalty shoot-out on the same date – June 22 n d . That was the curse, the hex on Spain so many Spaniards believed in. But on June 22 n d 2008 in Vienna, all that was thrown into the dustbin of history. Spain went on to win the Euro, then the World Cup and become the dominant team with the dominant style in soccer.
If Spain were to win this Euro and thus triumph in three consecutive championships, it would achieve soccer immortality and Spain would have reigned over soccer for almost a decade.
Italy plans to make sure that doesn’t happen. Italy plans to return from the wilderness that was created on that June 22nd in Vienna. After that fateful day, for Italy, came a miserable World Cup and sometimes nervous qualification for this Euro.
The momentum is now with Italy. The pressure is on Spain to forge forever its possession-game as the representative style of our age. Some see that style as pure sensory pleasure, others as prim and tedious. Italy doesn’t care. It wants its pride and preeminence back.
One could make lists of key players and key on-field battles for Sunday’s final. Pirlo against Iniesta for control of midfield. Torres against Balotelli in the striker battle.
But it’s really about two managers, their decisions and their ability to orchestrate the game with instructions and tactics, thought out beforehand and made on the fly during the game.
Italy’s renaissance here is largely manager Prandelli’s creation. First, he seems a calm, unfussy man, not given to succumbing to media pressure and committed to achieving like-mindedness both with his players and among them. He has been nonconformist at times, especially in a first-round game against Spain, in which he gave a prominent role to Daniele De Rossi, in a fluid 3-5-2 formation. He also somehow inspired Andrea Pirlo to take charge of midfield in an imperious manner that seemed to have left Pirlo in the last two years.
The former Ireland and Juventus player Liam Brady, now a pundit and Director of the Arsenal Youth Academy in England, said of Pirlo, “He’s run midfield with a cigar.” And Gianluca Vialli likened Pirlo to a quarterback, who is “dropping deep and looking for movement before passing.”
Prandelli‘s greatest success, though, is in allowing Balotelli and Antonio Cassano to flourish in short bursts. Both have egos and eccentricities to match their talent but Prandelli has managed to indulge them to the perfect extent, not too much inflation of ego, not too little.
Perhaps it is Prandelli’s own eccentricities that allow for his harmony with the likes of Balotelli and Cassano. He made a promise at the start of the Euro to the monks of the Camaldolese Priory in Poland that he would make a pilgrimage to the monastery on foot if Italy made the quarter-finals. And he did it.
Spain’s Vincnte Del Bosque is not such an eccentric. Famously shy, he sticks to short statements and his lack of ego has brought him the trust of a group of immensely talented and very rich players.
Long experienced in club management, he has an uncanny eye for spotting young talent and immersing that talent into the team. Every Spain squad he chooses contains a surprise, but a good one. His choice of Jordi Alba, the Valencia left back, for this tournament, was inspired. His sudden, near democ sprint down the left flank and subsequent cross for Xabi Alonso gave Spain its opening goal in the 2-0 win over France. Remember that? Alba just signed with Barcelona.
Del Bosque is without striker David Villa at this Euro and it has made a difference. His tactic of playing a packed midfield without a recognizable striker – often bringing on Fernando Torres at 60 minutes – seemed risky, yet it has worked, over and over.
But Spain – La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) – has seemed more fatigued than furious here. The possession game contained Cristano Ronaldo, but can it contain Balotelli and Cassano, both assisted by Pirlo?
That’s the key question. The Spain era might end as it began – with Italy as the opposition.