Sports

Euro 2012 Final: Italy vs. Spain Breakdown

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About a year ago my parents sold my childhood home and moved.

Riveting way to start a blog post, naturally.

Somewhere in the move, I sincerely hope a crudely-made sign I made as a 13-year-old survived. It read, "Forza Italia" with a picture of a blue jersey on it. Also think I wrote, in magic marker, "Goooooalll" and the words "Baggio." (Don't worry glitter, elbow macaroni and stickers weren't used in the poster.)

Long, boring, story short for whatever the reason -- well look at my last name -- when the denim-wave, mullet-wearing United States team was eliminated by Brazil in the 1994 World Cup on home soil, my rooting interests turned squarely toward Italy.

Primarily for one reason -- Roberto Baggio.

When soccer, at the time, was essentially limited to playing it in the backyard or on low-level town rec team -- never on television -- the 1994 World Cup, like for an entire generation of kids -- was eye-opening. It was almost like, wait, thiiiiiiis is soccer? It's not a glob of 20 kids chasing around a ball on a tiny field where the highlight is usually the halftime orange slices and Gatorade?

And nobody made that 1994 World Cup feel quite as special as the Divine Ponytail himself, Baggio.

To use the old cliche, when Baggio had the ball at his feet for Italy it felt like he was playing chess and everyone else was playing checkers. As the tournament progressed, it felt like every time he touched the ball something magic would happen for the Azzurri.

Everybody, once they become a serious soccer fan, have that one guy they fall for. The guy, when they watch, it all clicks and you understand why we love this game in spite of all the crap: the penalties, the 0-0 draws, the flopping, the European dandies, the atrocious referees and the John Terry-s.

For me, it was Baggio.

Suffice to say, when he skied his penalty over the bar in the eventual 1994 final against Brazil at the Rose Bowl, my little eyes were red -- really red.

As the years passed and Baggio's star wanted and eccentricities grew, I fell hard out of love with the Azzurri, culminating with a blood hatred of the land of my grandparents during the United State's 1-1, draw with Italy in the 2006 World Cup. Factor in the flopping, the cynical play, the pictures of players in their designed underwear and Danielle de Rossi's elbow to Brian McBride's forehead and there wasn't a national team out there as detestable as Italy.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to today's 2012 Euro final in Ukraine, however.

Italy -- the team American soccer fans love hate for all its dark arts -- all of a sudden became a lovable, enjoyable underdog. Meanwhile Spain(*) -- the creme de la creme, the side soccer intellectuals love to wax poetic about, the bearers of the beautiful game torch -- became, umm, boring, or more specifically a team who's string of 1-0 results reminded us of every sterotype of why Americans tended to hate the sport in the first place, namely lateral passing which might be a wise tactic since it keeps possession, yet bores anyone to tears watching it. 

(*) If you follow me on Twitter or read this site, you know I've been off the Spain bangwagon for years, not simply when they took the air out of the ball in the final Euro group stage game vs. Croatia when it started to hit a critical mass, not just me being a lonely 'hater.'

There's probably a few easy ways to figure out this rapid, radical sea change in European soccer rooting interests.

For one, it's impossible not to love the game of Andrea Pirlo. Maybe a lot of this has to do with the fact the United States has never produced a player -- please DO NOT say the name Claudio Reyna -- like Pirlo, the deep-sitting, pass-spraying, elegant midfield orchestra conductor. As soccer in this century gets more physical, more muscular, more about power and pace than intrinsic grace, Pirlo stands out.

The love, Italian style as it were, this time around isn't with a cheeky-dribbling braided ponytail No. 10 but rather rather an elegant passer with glorious chestnut mane.

Full credit to Italy coach Cesare Prandelli for deciding his team would sink or swim with Pirlo pulling the strings. Granted, putting your faith in a 33-year-old playmaker is a major risk, but Prandelli has gotten the team right. He wisely built the Italy squad around the Serie A champion Juventus, which went through the league campaign unbeaten.

Everyone loves to shit on Serie A, but has an undefeated season in any sport gotten less critical praise than that of the Old Lady's this year? (Double that for Italy defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, who've been imperial and equally anonymous in the center of the Azzurri defense.)

Wisely, Prandelli has used a trio of strong, two-way bodyguards in Claudio Marchiso, De Rossi and Claudio Marchiso/Thiago Motta to carry the water and protect Pirlo sits back as the Regista. The result has been magic, well, specifically a wholly unexpected run to the final.

Prandelli also lucked out to a degree that Juventus'(*) poor recent form in Serie A kept them out of Europe, so the team only played about 45 games all season, plus a winter break. More than simple luck, Marchiso has continued his breakout season into the Euro, while Gigi Buffon is in every sense of the word the spiritual, inspiration leader in goal, who too carried his Juventus form into June and now July -- with a beautiful singing voice to boot.

(*) Juventus did everything right last off season, huh? Beautiful new stadium, Pirlo for free. Arturo Vidal from Leverkausen.

Since we've talked about luck, there's no way to get around what Italy has gotten from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up top. Cassano, after suffering a mild stroke, is lucky to be a) alive and b) still playing soccer. His creativity in the second striker spot has made Italy quite dangerous as it plays on the counterattack.

That's one thing, but Prandelli has essentially pulled a 7-7-7 line on slot machine with Balotelli -- the human meme.

I've long written, if he ever got his head straight, Balotelli could be in the discussion of best players in the world. He's the total package, sans his inner demons that dance around his brain. Italy, though, has gotten Balotelli on his best behavior, as the 22-year-old as matured before our eyes at the tournament.

His second goal vs. Germany in the semifinals, which left Manuel Neuer waving like a octogenarian greeter at Wal-Mart was likely the enduring image of the Euro.  

Add it all up, and seemingly against type -- think John Travolta breaking out of the "Look Who's Talking" drek and becoming Vincent Vega -- Italy has done nothing but please the eyes (and ears with it's wonderful anthem), surprising viewers at every turn. In the process Italy has flipped the script, where a lot of people actively hope they deny Spain's place in the annals of soccer history.

In short, this hasn't been decades old catenaccio, defensive, cynical, crafty Italian stereotype. 

Everything written about Italy by 95 percent of pundits be it the dual-insanity of Cassano and Balotelli up top or the match-fixing scandal or the decline of Italian soccer in general was swiftly proven wrong in their first game, a 1-1 draw with Spain -- perhaps the most enthralling match of the tournament. Nobody, too, figured Italy would put up any fight vs. Germany, setting up the assumed pre-tournament final of Spain and Germany in a titanic clash we've waited four years to see.

Nope, Italy screwed that up and strangely enough we're all very happy to see it happen, too.

Full disclosure: Thursday night when out I went out to my local watering hole with a couple friends, I dug up my old, 1995-era Nike Italy jersey and not only wore it, but wore it with, ahem, pride. 

At heart, we're all 13-year-olds when it comes to this silly thing we call sports, aren't we?

Forza Italia.

[Post script, if Italy wins today vs. Spain and it means every douche in New Jersey or any beach area breaks out their own, freshly purchased Azzurri jerseys, I reserve the right to rescind everything previously written. Then again the alternative is guys in designed jean shorts with Cesc Fabregas jerseys. A no win situation.]