If ever a moment encapsulated the near absurdity of Italy’s stunning 2-0 victory over Spain on Monday, it came towards the end of the first half. Antonio Conte’s side had dominated proceedings in Paris, continuing to defy the odds at a tournament they entered as an afterthought. As if to take the game beyond reality into fantasy, Daniele De Rossi – midfield enforcer, tough tackler, consummate leader – nutmegged Andres Iniesta. The Stade de France, as it had been throughout, was stunned.
In that one moment, De Rossi had embarrassed his adversary. For the other 90, Italy out-thought, out-fought and thoroughly out-classed the reigning champions in a war of ideologies.
Football rivalries are an inherently simple thing to cultivate at club level. Geography, history and familiarity combine to create life-long enemies, ones that often cross the borders of family and friendship. At international level, it is rather more difficult, but the lack of regular battles ensure that such games are simply more memorable. This last-16 tie was no different.
This was the game once dubbed by a Spanish newspaper as ‘talent versus catenaccio’. It pits a country which celebrates a completed pass against once which elicits joy from a crunching tackle. It is a match which conjures memories of a blood-stained Jose Enrique in 1994, of Cesc Fabregas helping overcome Spain’s bête noire with a decisive penalty in 2008, and of Juan Mata celebrating his country’s fourth goal in a 2012 final dismantling, joining the rest of the viewing public in complete disbelief.
Historically however, one side always has the upper hand. Spain went over 80 years without beating Italy in a major international tournament from 1934 to 2008; Italy had won only one of their last 11 games against their age-old rival. On Monday, they re-assumed dominance over their former tormentors.
“We’re going to win because we’ve got more balls and bigger balls than the Italians,” Cesc Fabregas told Spanish newspaper AS before the last-16 clash. The comedy, as always, was in the timing. Italy were a unit against a team of individuals. They showed purpose and desire in the face of fear and, frankly, nothing.
If Spain and Italy were diametric opposites, their managers were in a complete different galaxy to one another. In one corner, Conte was the animated, aggressive commander, one who – quite literally at one point – kicked every ball with his players. Fans of certain national newspapers will have even taken a particular delight in the 46-year-old’s insistence on standing. His arrival at Chelsea is eagerly awaited.
And then there was Vicente Del Bosque. The man who led Spain into an unrivalled period of supremacy has helped carry them out of it. The 65-year-old was silent, unmoved and shell-shocked by the ease at which his side had been nullified and dismantled. It seemed at times that Conte was playing a computer game, controlling each of his players to carry out a game plan to perfection. Del Bosque’s controller simply kept disconnecting.
The opening goal captured the mood. Italy were organised, then sharp, alert and hungry to the rebound from Eder’s free-kick, with Giorgio Chiellini bundling the ball home. Spain, on the other hand, were caught off guard. They were disorganised and lackadaisical. It would become a general theme throughout, and Italy constantly threatened to capitalise. Save for a 10-minute spell in the ascendancy, Spain were the recipients of a 2-0 thrashing.
“The great safe breakers” was the phrase used by the BBC’s commentary team to describe Spain in the first half. Against the impeccable Chiellini, the wonderful Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, the imperious De Rossi and the powerful Graziano Pelle, they could not crack the code.
They once mastered the world and the continent with an unrivalled passing game, but, after being embarrassed in Brazil two years ago, the reign of Spain has finally been brought to a painful and conclusive end. Italy’s was a different form of superiority to the one their bitter rival had built their kingdom upon, but an equally effective one.