Two nations mired in financial crisis, scrounging their way around Europe like a penniless late night drunk looking for their bus fare home. Two nations on the verge of footballing immortality. For Spain and Italy, Euro 2012 could well be the saving grace for Europe’s blighted.
For Italy in particular, the final marks an incredible sequence of success in the face of the most unrelenting adversity. In fact, all of Italy’s contemporary triumphs have been fought amongst a quagmire of scandal and political disarray, predominantly within domestic football’s sketchy hierarchy. Still recovering from the Totonero betting scandal in 1982, Italy went on to win the World Cup: twenty-four years later, whilst still reeling from the much publicised Calciopoli investigation, the Italians achieved the same feat after an infamous battling victory again France in Berlin. Will Kiev in 2012 be another extension of the most unlikely triumph in the most trying of circumstances?
Football is game of escapism, one in which, once the first whistle blows, all personal worries evaporate into nothingness. When the stinging realities of the real word bite, football is a refuge. In April, just hours after learning of his mother’s death, Paolo Di Canio led Swindon against Plymouth in a gesture which suggests that football was not more important than life or death, but it can help us elude these harsh truths. Perhaps it is something enshrined in the Italian outlook. Gianluigi Buffon said that “the Italian national team means a lot to me. I lost two great grandparents in the war, singing the anthem shows what it means to me”. Besides providing a form of escapism, for the Italians crisis and tragedy provided a motivation, a chance to pour all that emotional heartache into football. Turmoil breeds hunger and eagerness.
Embroiled in the ongoing Calcioscommesse going into the tournament and riddled by financial and political instability at home, Italy entered Euro 2012 amidst a widely unsettled domestic landscape. Whereas for the likes of Greece Euro 2012 provided a timely distraction from their political woes, in Italy football was inherently entwined with the destabilised situation. Much like in 1982 and 2006, football has been inseparable from some of Italy’s most unshakeable pests: corruption, greed, extortion. When full-back Domenico Criscito was withdrawn from Italy’s championship squad after being questioned by investigators, it seemed as though these misgivings would follow the Azzurri to Ukraine and Poland.
Instead, quite the opposite has happened. Rather than allowing themselves to be plagued by events back home, Italy have found themselves liberated by hardship. They have ran that yard further, committed themselves just that little bit more, and vitally have matched their gallant desire to succeed with traditional Italian finesse. They have played to reconquer a wounded national pride, to show the world there is more to Italy than scandal and infamy. Dignity, perseverance and class have all defined Italy’s Euro 2012 campaign. Whereas such ignominy back home may have hindered another national side, it has spurred Italy to excel themselves.
Coach Cesare Prandelli has managed to bring humility to egotistical players, the volatile Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano predominantly casting aside individual desires in search of collective glory. The youngest starter in the squad by some way, Balotelli has had his negative traits subdued by calming, wise influences: the mastery of Andrea Pirlo, the worldliness of Buffon, De Rossi’s sterling captaincy. With one of the oldest squads in the tournament, Prandelli has perfected the art of exploiting your own strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses, showing impressive tactical flexibility and an ability to adapt accordingly. Domination of England and an embarrassingly comfortable semi-final win over Germany have displayed Italy’s stout, resolute nature. Deadly in the finish, unwavering on the ball and unfaltering at the back, Italy have become a far tougher proposition than their pre-tournament odds may have suggested.
Perhaps most revealingly, just three of Italy’s squad play on foreign soil, of which only Balotelli has been a regular feature at Euro 2012. The entirety of the squad would have found the Calcioscommesse scandal unavoidable and would have felt the fallout more keenly than others. It must have felt like a personal grievance; an attack on their profession, their livelihood, their civic honour. Italy’s players have taken it upon themselves begin the battle for redemption on the pitch.
Whilst Spain remain in domestic turmoil, they have the triumphs of 2008 and 2010 to uphold national dignity, the enthralling presence of two of the world’s greatest club sides to maintain self-esteem. Italy have reason more than most to yearn for victory in Kiev on Sunday night. Though there is no greater motivation the the possibility of becoming European champions, Italy have a score to settle. The pride of a nation, and a national game, to restore. It may just make the difference.
What has been Italy’s secret so far at Euro 2012? Tweet me @acherrie1