Run to final restored Italian pride

Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (L) and Andrea Pirlo react after losing their Euro 2012 final...

Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (L) and Andrea Pirlo react after losing their Euro 2012 final soccer match against Spain at the Olympic stadium in Kiev July 1, 2012. (REUTERS)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:03 PM ET

KIEV, UKRAINE - The tears trickled down the face of Gianluigi Buffon, a reflection of the gut-wrenching heartbreak his entire team was suffering.

The veteran Italian goalkeeper, like the rest of his teammates, could only watch in silence as their hooting and hollering Spanish foes hoisted the trophy symbolic of the European championship just a few yards away, the result of a dramatic 4-0 victory over Buffon and Co. in the title game Sunday evening.

But cry not for Italy. In the end, they have nothing to be ashamed of.

When the 16 teams congregated in Poland and Ukraine early last month, few gave the Azzurri a legitimate shot at reaching the final. But led by the brilliance of silky smooth midfielder Andrea Pirlo and dynamic, if not enigmatic, striker Mario Balotelli, the Italians captured the hearts of an entire country in need of a distraction from the game-fixing scandal hovering over its domestic soccer.

On Monday, they will visit Italian president Giorgio Napolitano in Rome. The invitation had been extended long before the first ball had been booted in the final, an acknowledgement of this team's restoration of pride in Italian soccer.

Yet, in the moments after the dream ended, it was hard for Italian manager Cesare Prandelli to find the positives as he peered across the pitch at the Spanish celebrations.

"We had a remarkable tournament, but it is dfficult to think about that when the clock is winding down and you see the score," Prandelli said. "But that is what happens in sport and you must deal with it."

What was difficult for the Italians to deal with in the final was the barrage of injuries, cramps and fatigue that overcame them. Many players admitted that their impressive 2-1 victory over Germany in the semifinal left them out of gas, something Spain took advantage of in the final.

The most devastating blow, however, occurred in the 61st minute when midfielder Thiago Motta went down with an apparent hamstring injury. Watching Motta's face clenched in pain as he was carried off the field on a stretcher, the Italians, already down 2-0, pretty much knew this was not their day.

"They had the unfortunate injury to Motta. That is where it ended for them," Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque acknowledged.

This Italian team will be reckoned with down the road. Just not on this particular night.

"With the injuries and such, we were unlucky," defender Giorgio Chiellini said. "It is disappointing."

Understandable.

But that won't keep Italy's president and its people from giving Chiellini and his teammates a collective "thank you" on Monday.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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