Blue moon on the rise
By Liam Mackey
Just a few short weeks ago — which now feels more like many long years, — Ireland were sitting pretty and serene in their Montecatini base in Tuscany while no more than 30 miles away at their Coverciano training camp, Italy’s footballers were waking up to dawn raids, shock-horror headlines and all the trappings of another explosive calcio scandal.
Things weren’t much better on the pitch. One night in a restaurant in Montecatini most of the already disenchanted locals didn’t know where to look as the television showed the Azzurri being trounced 3-0 by Russia in a friendly, the chaotic nature of two of the goals suggesting that, whatever else Italian football was busy fixing at the time, it didn’t include the national team’s defence.
So who’d have thought Italy would go on to contest the final of Euro 2012 against holders Spain – and with a growing number of tipsters now leaning in the direction of the blue shirts ahead of tomorrow’s decider in Kiev. Mind you, we might well have thunk it, had we paid some attention to the lessons of history.
Think World Cup 1982, a tourney backdropped by a match-fixing and betting scandal and so much negative press criticism that the players imposed a boycott of the meeja. Result? The Italians knock out brilliant Brazil on the way to a final triumph over West Germany which ensured that, even if he hadn’t gone on to become the Assistant Manager of Ireland, Marco Tardelli would have been assured of sporting immortality.
Or think World Cup 2006, another Calciopoli scandal, another defeat of Germany – this time in the semi-final – and, after ZZ blew his top in Berlin, a final which ended with iron man Fabio Cannavaro holding aloft the golden prize. Which isn’t to say that Italy will go all the way again this time but, such has been the hugely impressive nature of their progress over the last couple of weeks, neither will anyone now be foolish enough to regard Spain as the raging hot favourites they would have been before the tournament kicked off.
From the totemic Gigi Buffon at the back to the livewire movement of Antonio Cassano upfront, Cesare Prandelli’s team have been, as they say in football, “at it” all over the pitch. And when even Mario Balotelli is making headlines for all the right reasons, you just know that everything has clicked into the right gear at the right time But the main man, of course, has been Andrea Pirlo. He might look like an aging rocker but he exudes immaculate cool, his every other touch a flirtation with the sublime and his penalty against England still the stand-out moment of the whole tournament. A bit like Zidane in 2006, Pirlo has rolled back the years to inspire his team but, unlike Zidane in 2006, it’s almost as hard to imagine the Italian playmaker losing his head as it is to picture him losing the ball.
Another thing we’ve learned to love about this Italian side is their willingness to mix it up. For sure, they can play a tight possession game but, when the long ball is on, they need no second invitation to go Route One.
Such variety to their play has already proved a trump card and it will be fascinating to see how Spain’s defence copes with that more direct approach tomorrow. By contrast, the Spanish, as we know, are happy to go all around the houses before unlocking the door but they’ll surely need a sharper cutting edge in the final if they are to find a way through Italy’s redoubtable rearguard.
A lot will depend on which Spanish side turns up: the one which laboured through 90 minutes against Portugal or the one which rediscovered its mojo in extra-time and which really should have put the matter to bed before finally edging through on penalties. On the face of it, this is a final which is shaping up to be more intriguing than thrilling but I hazard that guess in the full knowledge a fine Euro 2012 has already thrown up its fair share of surprises, from Russia self-destructing and Germany falling short to Holland suffering the same ignominy as Ireland and leaving the tournament with nul points.
Poland has now officially bid farewell to Euro 2012 as Ukraine takes centre stage for the final act. Notwithstanding the fact that unfinished and unopened roads around the stadium in Gdansk testified to a couple of deadlines that weren’t met, those of us who travelled around their country for ten days or so can confirm that the Poles have every reason to be satisfied with their part in hosting the tournament. During my time there, I happily dipped in and out of A Country In The Moon, Australian writer Michael Moran’s account of his travels in Poland, a book which offers an engaging blend of history, observation and autobiography. And it was in its pages that I came across a wealthy 18th century Polsih eccentric called Karol Radziwell, one of whose passions, we are informed, was “shooting flying bisons”.
Something lost in translation there, perhaps? Mais non, for as Moran goes on to explain: “His servants catapulted these huge creatures into the air from massive launchers hidden in the primeval forest surrounding his castle. Karol would take careful aim and fire. He was considered a crack shot and unfailingly brought down his quarry.” What with the small matter of a European Championship final ahead of him tomorrow and all, I think best not to breathe a word of this to Super Mario, okay? Home