Scandal-plagued Italy rises above

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon celebrates his team's first goal against Germany during their...

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon celebrates his team's first goal against Germany during their Euro 2012 semifinal match in Warsaw, Poland, June 28, 2012. (PASCAL LAUENER/Reuters)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:13 PM ET

KIEV - This was much more than a letter, much more than a pep talk in print, much more than simple words on a piece of paper.

This was a vote of confidence for a side that had once again brought pride and honour to a country that, not so long ago, had been shrouded in controversy and shame over the sport it so passionately bleeds for.

As Italian manager Cesare Prandelli gathered his team together in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium locker room Saturday evening prior to their final workout in preparation for Sunday’s titanic Euro 2012 final clash with favoured Spain, he unfurled the note that had been sent from president Giorgio Napolitano and conveyed the message to his players.

Here, there was no talk of game-fixing scandals. Or seedy money laundering schemes. Or investigations into wrongdoings within the domestic league back home.

Here, there were only positive thoughts from president Napolitano that were being passed on to the players, a group that, win or lose, has been invited to visit him in Rome on Monday because of the upstanding way they have carried themselves at Euro 2012.

“They are fantastic words,” Prandelli said. “They conveyed how we have portrayed team spirit and generosity.

“I hope we can live up to expectations.”

Given the black cloud that accompanied the Italian squad to the tournament in Poland/Ukraine, it already has exceeded them.

Consider the situation of veteran goaltender Gianluigi Buffon, who had to battle some huge distractions on the eve of this tournament.

As the Italians were training before departing to meet Spain in the first group match for both sides early last month, Buffon’s lawyer had to deny that his client was guilty of any wrongdoing after it was revealed that magistrates had requested info concerning a handful of Buffon’s cheques totalling more than US$1.5 million that had been found at a betting agency in Parma.

To have emerged from those seedy, as yet unsubstantiated allegations to the verge of a Euro title in just over a month is sweet redemption for Buffon, a man whose voice cracks with emotion whenever he talks about pulling the fabled blue Italian jersey over his chest.

This is a guy who can be seen singing the Italian national anthem prior to each and every game as if it is an oath of allegiance. As such, he admitted being touched by the endorsement from president Napolitano for an Italian team that, even Buffon admits, is an underdog against the defending Euro and World Cup champion Spanish.

Buffon acknowledges that Italian players are accustomed to rising to the occasion when domestic controversy rears its ugly head back home. In the months leading up to their World Cup titles in 1982 and 2006, they faced similar circumstances and overcame them to hoist the trophy.

“We nearly always have (a scandal),” said Buffon, Italy’s captain. “So we’re probably used to living with these difficulties.”

In such trying times, the unifying thread, according to Buffon, is that coveted national team jersey.

“I do think it is something unique,” Buffon said. “Beyond the things that have been said and the rumours that you hear, I think Italians have a lot of love for the shirt that goes beyond our limitations.”

Buffon and Prandelli are saying all the right things. How the Spanish should be favourites. How they reject that Spain is “boring.” How Italy will have its hands full. And, in Buffon’s words, how the Italians have been “a surprise” in this tournament.

Maybe so.

But the Italians come into the final with much more sizzle than the Spanish. In fact, by impressively dumping the favoured Germans 2-1 in the semifinal, they have captured the imaginations of a lot of fans in the past 48 hours.

Part of the Spanish mystique is the fact that they have been on this stage before, having captured both the 2008 Euro title and the 2010 World Cup, At the same time, Buffon also knows that feeling, having coddled the World Cup trophy in Berlin in 2006.

“Of course, there will be similar emotions and we will have the same confidence,” Buffon said. “We will have to see how that works out on the pitch.”

Whatever happens, they already have won over their president.

And, it would appear, much of their entire country.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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