Azzurri retain honour in defeat

It is usual in football for a crushing defeat to be followed by recrimination and the search for scapegoats.

It’s a measure of the respect Italy have for Spain, but also for their own football, that they can take Sunday’s 4-0 defeat on the chin.

“Never in the game,” was the brutal assessment of the Gazzetta dello Sport, although they also awarded Iker Casillas top marks for the saves which snuffed out Italy’s chances of a comeback on two occasions — and for the way he extended himself to flick away the crosses aimed at Mario Balotelli. Not quite man of the match — that was Xavi — but one of them. “Considering that his girlfriend is the prettiest journalist in Europe, there are a lot of grounds for jealousy.”

The embrace between Casillas and his opposing captain Gigi Buffon at the end summed up most people’s reaction to the game: defeat with dignity. Spain’s performance was given a perfect 10 by the Gazzetta compared to a five for Italy, which must surely be the biggest margin since records began: “Perhaps even the legendary Hungarians of the 1950s didn’t play as well.”

The comparison that comes to mind is more the untouchable Brazil team of the 1970 World Cup. They too put four past Italy in the final, and that Italian team had also overcome formidable German opposition a few days earlier.

Then, as now, Italy arrived in the final with very little fuel in the tank and were eventually run ragged. Brazil, like Spain today, disdained the idea of a conventional attack. All bar two of their outfield players could have played as forwards for any other side in the world: Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Gerson, Rivelino, Tostao, and of course Pele. Italy’s legendary defenders, even the fearsome Burgnich and Facchetti, couldn’t cope.

Beppe Bergomi, himself a legendary defender in the 1982 World Cup side that gained revenge against another great Brazilian team, was full of praise for Spain’s back line, for Jordi Alba and particularly Sergio Ramos for the way he intimidated Mario Balotelli from the outset.

“You could see from the start that the physical condition of the team was not the same as in previous games,” commented Luca Marchegiani, Italy’s goalkeeper back in 1994.

“Chiellini wasn’t right, the midfield didn’t succeed in speeding up the game in the face of the Spanish pressing. Above all, the team failed to stay short and compact.”

Dino Zoff, their keeper and skipper in 1982 said: “We had a gear less than they did. It seemed we were seeing a rerun of the Germany game, but with the roles reversed.”

Yet the Italians have taken a lot of encouragement from this tournament.

Two years ago, they plumbed the depths in South Africa. Cesare Prandelli was appointed manager more in hope than in confidence. Universally liked because of his character and sense of principle, he had done well with meagre resources at Parma and Fiorentina, but never reached a final, let alone won a trophy, other than the Serie B title with Verona in 1999.

The turnaround has been remarkable. Prandelli promised a different brand of football, more audacious, less cynical, and kept his word. He stuck by that approach, even against Spain, when defending deep might have been more advisable.

Many people doubted whether the code of ethics he introduced would survive its first challenge. Nevertheless he dropped Balotelli because of his misbehaviour at Manchester City and on the eve of the tournament, he dropped Domenico Criscito because he was linked with the betting scandal.

Instead of becoming an embarrassment, the code has helped cement team spirit, along with other off-field initiatives such as the commitment to the campaign against the mafia.

Most managers would have protested about Italy’s limited recovery time between matches — they had two days less rest than Germany before the semi-final and a day less than Spain before the final. Prandelli went quietly about his business and his players responded, even though three hard physical games, against Ireland, England and Germany, eventually took their toll.

Spain are the unquestioned winners in football terms. Whether they are the best international team in history or merely one of the best three or four, hardly matters.

Italy too should take a lot from this tournament, including the Balotelli/Cassano attacking partnership which few thought would work — but most of all the belief that Prandelli’s new course is achieving results.

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