June 29, 2012
Can Italy duplicate feat 30 years later?
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
KIEV - It was supposed to be a football version of Star Wars splitting the Ukrainian night, a collision of the old Spanish masters and their thrusting young German challengers.
It was the dream final, the one to nurse and savour like a fine glass of Rioja or hock.
Unfortunately, the trouble with a dream is that quite often it encounters reality. If any football nation on earth has an endless supply of the commodity, it is surely Italy.
The Azzurri stuff their pockets with it. They take it to the school field or the village square. They could fill whole wharfs and hangers.
They have used it, reality, bone deep obduracy, natural-born instinct, call it what you like, relentlessly down the years, with a mixture of cynicism and beauty, and it is why they now threaten to underline their status as second only to Brazil in the league of top nations.
The Italians have four World Cups, one less than Brazil, one more than Thursday's victims, Germany, and an apparently infinite capacity to ambush more favoured opponents.
Teams like Germany, the new force in the game as so many have agreed, and a revived France in the 2006 World Cup final, who proposed their ambitions and Italy shrugged and promptly disposed of them.
It is a mere detail that a new element this week is Italy's adopted son, Mario Balotelli. Some say that Balotelli's origins are in Africa, others favour the theory that they reside in another planet, which is weird but still fabulous.
Whatever, Italian coach Cesare Prandelli sees the problem and the power of Balotelli in the same way as his often exasperated compatriot Roberto Mancini at Manchester City.
He rejects utterly the theory Jose Mourinho offered while he was at Internazionale that Balotelli simply isn't worth the trouble. Prandelli's reward for his Italian pragmatism might just be the championship of Europe.
Can the nation of such recently installed legends as Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini deny the Spanish pursuit of a place in history as the winner of three straight major tournaments?
Why not, you have to ask? What could be more Italian? What could be more delicious than such an intrusion into somebody else's fondest ambitions?
It seems like a reasonable enough resolve when you consider what they did to the 2-5 semifinal favourites in Warsaw under the prompting of the ageless Andrea Pirlo, who was voted the 2006 World Cup's third-best player, and with the cosmic impact of Balotelli.
They absorbed the predictable opening onslaught from Germany, drew them into their web, and then coolly played into the holes left in defence. It was pure, deep Azzuri heaven as Balotelli supplied the finishing power that some time ago ceased to be part of the Spanish game.
It was though the goals were fashioned not so much in Italy's playbook as its football soul.
For those privileged to see the best of them -- and some of the worst when Claudio Gentile was at the height of his hatchet work in the 1970s and '80s, and telling Diego Maradona after one gruelling experience, "Diego, football is not for ballerinas" -- it was at times an almost uncanny re-playing of the past.
Many remember Italy's World Cup triumph in Berlin six years ago most vividly for the way Marco Materazzi suckered Zinedine Zidane into the head butt.
But then this week the temptation was not to remember the trash talk of Materazzi and Zidane's explosive reaction than the superb defence of Fabio Cannavaro and the subtleties of Pirlo.
That was one of the supreme examples of Italy's ability to get done a daunting task, to think and scheme its way beyond a challenge, but it was still some way from the greatest demonstration of all.
That came in Barcelona in 1982, when the superb Brazilian side of Socrates and Zico received a shock that would haunt them for the rest of the lives -- an admission the captain Socrates made before his death last year.
Socrates was tall and the most elegant midfielder, a beautiful passer of the ball and considered an heir to the greatest of Brazilians, a man who would surely secure the nation's fourth World Cup. He wore a white head band and marvellous insouciance while about the most serious business and said, yes, a solemn duty had been accepted. A World Cup had to be won.
Italy was not listening, of course, and Brazil lost 3-2 in a match that may have been the most engaging, the most riveting, the most draining, ever staged in a World Cup.
Paolo Rossi, who was at the centre of the kind of match-fixing scandal that was supposed to drag down the current team these last few weeks, struck three times to plunder a Brazilian defence which seemed incapable of detaching itself from the exuberance of the attack.
The Sarria Stadium, small and set among pastel-coloured apartment buildings, opened up like a giant sunflower when Brazilian made it 2-2 with a sublimely hit volley by Roberto Falcao. It was enough to move forward from the group along the road to the Madrid final but the yellow flags were waving and the drums were beating and the Italians had been impertinent.
So they had to be punished. Rossi struck, when the Brazilian defence left itself as exposed as the German one in Warsaw. Then, as this week, it was a gift too good to be rejected. The road to Madrid was open and in the Bernabeu Germany was crushed 3-1. When Marco Tardello scored, his celebration filled the great stadium.
Some said that the pipe-smoking Italian coach, Enzo Bearzot, who suffered terrible abuse during the build up, had released "the caged bird" of Italian football, let it free to produce the very best of itself.
But the truth was probably a lot less poetic. He had in Rossi a great natural-born finisher and, being Italian and pragmatic and all those other things that have again taken the team so very close to the mountain top, he was not about to neglect such a weapon, no more than Prandelli was inclined to shy away from the volatile nature of Mario Balotelli.
Can Prandelli's team really go those extra yards at the Olympic stadium here, as Bearzot's did 30 years ago?
The suspicion has to be that the Italians can. In the first half of their group game against Spain in Gdansk, Italy was not slow to set the agenda.
Pirlo played an exquisite pass to Antonio Di Natale for the opening goal, the only one scored against Spain in the tournament, and it was a surprise that such panache and killing touch did not further embolden the Azzurri. It was as if they had stepped back from the enormity of what they had done.
It doesn't look quite so huge now, not after the taming of Germany, the extraordinary impact of Balotelli, the expression and confidence of Pirlo and the life and imagination of Antonio Cassano, whose work for Balotelli's first goal would have created doubt in the minds of any opponent.
Spain, of course, is not any opponent.
Spain has, in Andres Iniesta, arguably the best player of his generation. The Spaniards have the pride that comes with brilliant achievement.
But do they have the moment?
Are they free from the shadow of creeping doubt?
One thing is certain. Italy, once again, is plainly equipped to find out.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK