As world and European champions Spain face four-times World Cup winners Italy in the Euro 2012 final, Keme Nzerem asks if Italian flair and defensive excellence can overcome Spanish tiki-taka.
When I sat in Joburg’s Ellis Park stadium during the World Cup two years ago, Italy’s football team were so lacking in cohesion and method they were sent packing by the mighty Slovakians.
It was a game full of tempo, and, by jove, England could have done with but a smidge of either side’s vim. But unlike the barely watchable England, Italy failed to make it as far as the second round.
And it is back to the World Cup that one must look to begin to make sense of one of the most extraordinary periods in world football since a young man called Diego Maradona invented entirely new ways of loving, stroking, and dazzling with the ball.
For it is necessity, after all, that is the mother of invention, and like Germany before them (remember that 5-1 in Munich over a decade ago and a hat-trick from a certain Michael Owen?), since the World Cup Italy have done something England have profoundly failed to achieve.
And that is to move on.
Now, forgive me for parsing through English terms what is evidently considered by many to be a match that speaks entirely for itself.
The facts, as they stand, from a neutral position: Italy – four times World Cup winners, European champions way back in 1968 – tonight face Spain, current world and European champions, looking to make history and become the first side ever to retain their European title.
Sorry old England – dumped out at the quarterfinal stage by Italy on penalties, having been outplayed for 120 minutes.
And then sorry old England. Dumped out at the quarterfinal stage by Italy on penalties, having been comprehensively played off the park for the entire 120 minutes.
But first let us indulge a whistle-stop tour of football’s remarkable evolution of the last two years.
Germany were tipped by many as the only side that had the confidence and creativity throughout the length and breadth of the pitch to be able to nullify Spain’s extraordinary new pattern of play.
Spanish “tiki-taka”. Deploy two defenders. Do away entirely with traditional strikers. And instead pack the midfield with eight interlocuting dynamos – happy to spin, weave and confound opponents with rapier precision and skill. A kind of footballing Brownian motion. Mesmerising, and for a brief moment they appeared utterly unstoppable.
Let me take you back to the World Cup for a moment, and another team who have so often stood on the cusp of greatness: Germany. Forget, if you can, that they would eventually be sent packing by the Spanish. Consider how they rendered England so utterly defenceless in Bloemfontein in the round of 16.
Germany sculpted diamonds while England hewed chips off the same old hulking block. And therein lay the beginning of what was so nearly something new.
Because while tiki-taka might still glisten as an art form, it has proved somewhat precarious as a means of guaranteeing a win.
And to understand that one needs to look at club football. Barcelona saw off Manchester United with consummate ease in last season’s Champion’s League final, but a year later and English football had learned. If the Spanish were going to park eight men in midfield, they’d leave all 11 men behind the ball – and just wait for a chance.
Boring football, anyone who cares about the game would note. But, it soon turned out, potentially very effective. Chelsea beat both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to lift the trophy for the first time in their history. Barcelona and Bayern both supplying the core of the players for their respective national teams, Spain and Germany.
But it wasn’t just the English antidote to tiki-taka that had become dull. The Spanish, we discovered, had become boring too. Never scoring more than two goals in the World Cup. Progressing through the entire knockout stages with a series of 1-0 victories.
It wasn’t until their national team spanked four past Ireland in the group stages of Euro 2012 that it appeared they’d realised if you want to score, then more often than not it requires the odd shot on goal.
So who was it who would break this impasse in strategic evolution?
Italy have inherited the mantle as the only team with a game plan that can unlock Spain’s mesmerising circulation of the ball.
Not the Germans, who’d impressed so many with their end-to-end attacking play. A team happy to fire in half chances from the edge of the box on the half volley.
Because along came a resurgent Italy. Yes, the same Italy who had failed to even qualify from the World Cup group stages. The same Italy whose then manager, Marcelo Lippi, was so furious at the outcome, we saw him shun the outstretched hand of his opposing number as he stalked from the pitch.
The very Italy whose domestic game is yet again besmirched by another match-fixing scandal. But a side who have inherited the mantle as the only team who now possess a game plan that can unlock Spain’s mesmerising circulation of the ball.
With the football world’s focus on Ukraine, England fans took solace from the unlikely fact that Italy upended the Germans more easily than latecomer Roy Hodgson’s unfancied 23. England’s 4-2 defeat on penalties suddenly didn’t look quite as bad when Italy sent Germans home after a clean defeat during open play. The Germans bereft of ideas. The Italians somehow managing to meld Spanish possession and midfield command with an unerring eye for goal.
Two key players
So how have they done it? It may be uncharitable to the collective effort of the whole, but let us focus on the contributions of the few rather than the many.
Italy possess two key players who have the nous and confidence to turn the game on Sunday evening. Who has failed to be impressed with Mario Balotelli, the best striker of the tournament? Still only 21 years old, and thus still growing and maturing. And the best player of the tournament, 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo. Magisterial in his roving midfield attentions, sublime in his love for and distribution of the ball.
And surrounding those two, a squad with the defensive heritage of the stoic catenaccio but the dynamism to enjoy the ball through the pitch and deliver to an outstanding finisher who is, on his day, unfazed by the slimmest of opportunities.
Against a Spain boasting a squad which rewrote the rules of football engagement.
The teams, of course, met in the Euro 2012 group stages, nearly a month ago in Gdansk. The final score was 1-1. That ain’t gonna happen tonight.