Italy have defied the odds to reach the Euro 2012 final, and while Spain are the favourites to win Sunday’s match, the neutrals should really be rooting for the Azzurri.
I wrote on Thursday in the wake of Italy’s 2-1 win over Germany in the semifinal that Spain would start the showpiece in Kiev as the more fancied side in most people’s books. Nothing has changed in that regard.
However, the majority of the anticipated 250 million-strong television audience should be supporting the team of Buffon, Pirlo and Balotelli rather than that of Casillas, Xavi and Torres.
If Italy win on Sunday, they will have been just as successful as Spain in major tournaments over the past decade.
Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in.
Italy won their fourth and most recent World Cup in 2006, while Spain have claimed both the European and world crowns. Therefore, a victory for the Azzurri would mean the two countries have engineered an equal duopoly of glory for the past four major tournaments.
Of course, there are caveats that come attached to such a statement.
The Spain squad that will be present at Olimpiyskyi Stadium on Sunday will feature 18 of the players who won the World Cup two years ago and a dozen of those who lifted the Henri Delaunay trophy in 2008. Both of those totals are not including David Villa and Carles Puyol—who are missing from the party in Poland and Ukraine through injury.
By contrast, Italy has only retained four players from the 23 which triumphed in Germany six years ago, while seven of the current squad were present in South Africa when Italy finished bottom of a group that also contained Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.
Clearly, Spain are the side who are expected to win, and that should be enough reason to support the other side.
One of the most consistent and enduring thrills found in watching any sport is found in supporting the underdog. That is why Wimbledon was so captivated in watching Lukas Rosol defeat Rafael Nadal in five sets at the same time as Italy were beating Euro 2012's joint-favourites, Germany, on Thursday.
Sharing in a triumph over adversity is one of the most basic tenets upon which any sporting contest is based for the neutral. As enjoyable as it is to see the great and the good perform to their optimum level, it is always rendered slightly redundant if the opponent they are facing is not up to the task.
Italy’s steady improvement throughout the tournament—the foundations of which lie in their 1-1 draw with Spain secured in their opening match in Group C—gives rise to hope that they will at least offer significant resistance to the world’s top-ranked side in the final, if not upset the odds by defeating them.
Significant resistance is just the sort of thing that Spain have encountered with less frequency as they have perfected their short-passing possession—to the point where some have decried their technically masterful approach as boring to watch.
However, such criticism does not usually take into account the fact that the opposition rarely has any way of dealing with such a precisely-honed tactic. Italy are perhaps one of the only sides in world football capable of doing so when it really counts.
Another important component in a neutral’s enjoyment of competition is that of a compelling narrative—and it is prevalent in this Italian team in spades.
We have Andrea Pirlo—the veteran midfielder who is finally getting the universal acclaim his incredible career deserves at the end of a season in which he won Serie A as part of an undefeated Juventus team.
There is Mario Balotelli—the striker who some would describe as precocious and others as unhinged. The first Italian ever to claim a Premier League winner’s medal, Balotelli’s match-winning performance against Germany will fill many fans with hope that the 21-year-old has finally come of age at the highest level.
Manager Cesare Prandelli is a man cutting his teeth in international management. The former Fiorentina boss—who lost his wife to breast cancer in 2007—has conducted himself exceptionally well throughout his first international tournament in any capacity. Twice during this tournament, Prandelli has walked 13 miles through the dead of night from Italy’s base in Krakow to Camaldolese monastery.
And there is the unavoidable spectre of match-fixing hanging over the Italian team as they once again prepare for the final of a major tournament. The latest scandal resulted in defender Domenico Criscito withdrawing from the squad last month in order to defend himself against allegations of corruption.
Not that such charges harmed Italy in the past. In the midst of winning both the 1982 and 2006 World Cups, domestic football in Italy was beset by accusations of match-fixing, but the national team triumphed regardless.
To see Spain emerge victorious on Sunday will be to see history in the making. No international team has ever won three major tournaments back-to-back, and if Vicente del Bosque’s side does not achieve that feat, then it could be a long time before another nation comes close.
However, for the sake of an enjoyable 90 minutes—or perhaps even 120 plus penalties—of action in the Ukrainian capital, those without a vested interest should be rooting for Italy.