It took what the Spanish call cojones for Cesc Fabregas to score Spain's winning penalty last night and lift of one of the oldest curses on their national team. The Arsenal midfielder's last and decisive spot-kick in the shootout put Spain into the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and suggested that, at last, Europe's great underachievers are about to realise their potential in a major tournament.
The 21-year-old held his nerve and, after a monumental battle over 120 minutes and nine penalty-kicks, he took Spain past the quarter-finals for the first time since 1984. Not that the date itself offered any great comfort to Spain: before last night they had lost three penalty shootouts in major tournaments on yesterday's date 22 June – in 1986, 1996 and 2002. Roberto Donadoni's team almost wore them down but there is something tougher than their predecessors at the heart of this Spain team.
It is Russia that Spain will face in the semi-final, a team that was flicked aside 4-1 by Luis Aragones' side in the group stages although that was before Guus Hiddink's men found the formidable stride that they fell into against Sweden and the Netherlands. "It would be wrong to think that because we beat Russia 4-1 we will get to the final easily," Iker Casillas said. "They are a great team and they have showed that since they played us. Whatever happened in the group stages does not matter now."
Casillas was outstanding in the penalty shootout, stopping the critical penalties from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale and it was hard not to think that some kind of justice was served. Having reached the business end of Euro 2008, the world champions evidently decided that entertaining, open football was a notion to which they need no longer subscribe to for this competition. Only Spain genuinely tried to win this game within 120 minutes; Donadoni's team got the penalty shootout that, for long periods of this match, they seemed to be playing for.
"It could have been any other penalty that I was asked to take," Fabregas said. "From my point of view I believe that Spain deserved to win this game." Hard to argue on that point and Fabregas has made his most eloquent case yet to start a match for the first time in this tournament against Russia on Thursday night in Vienna. On for Xavi before the hour he looked Spain's best playmaker.
Donadoni's position as Italian manager will be reviewed over the next few days, the Italian football federation said after the match and, judging by their president Giancarlo Abete's refusal to back his man, it would seem that the coach will soon be sacked. Donadoni's record in penalty shootouts is about as good as Spain's – he ruefully recalled after the match how he had lost in similar fashion as a player in an under-21 tournament, the 1994 World Cup final and the 1990 World Cup semi-final.
Too bad then, that for most of this match his team seemed content to play for a penalty showdown. In terms of the wider picture this was a result that Euro 2008 needed. Yes, the Russians thrilled against the Netherlands and Germany have that old resolution. Turkey, who knows? But Spain will provide that splash of colour and big- name players that the semi-finals otherwise lacked. It is to be hoped that Hiddink's side open up in the same way against them on Thursday in Vienna and provide us with a vision of what true attacking football looks like from both teams.
No such luck last night. With Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso unavailable to Italy because of suspensions in response they lined up with three solid lines of white shirts between Luca Toni in attack and Gian-luigi Buffon in goal. The Netherlands taught Donadoni's ageing team an important lesson: stick to what you know. And what the Italians know best is defending their goal man by man. Every time Spain found themselves in possession, white shirts ranged against them.
Against a defence that sat deep, Fernando Torres could not profit from the quick ball slipped behind the defensive line for him to run on to. The Italians were not slow to apply a judicious boot to shin or foot when they judged that the situation required it. David Silva was one of his team's best attackers but, like David Villa, tarnished his evening's work with some dreadful diving. They are both great technicians but suspect against bigger, tougher international defenders.
At least both could look at Toni and draw reassurance. The Italian centre-forward has had a dreadful tournament with no goals and scarcely a shot on target. How he came to be the top goalscorer in the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich last season reflects very poorly on the German game. In addition he is an incorrigible diver which, in one so big, is an even less forgivable strategy. Nevertheless, this tournament has probably saved one Premier League club the expense and embarrassment of splashing out on Italy's non-goalscoring centre-forward.
The empty seats in the Italian end were something of a novelty for those of us who follow the England team for a living. At a tournament that has been beset by ticket touts, those who bet on the undying interest of the Italian fans would have lost out. They were the same at Euro 2004 and not even the victory in the World Cup two years ago seems to have changed their minds. That said, Italy can be a difficult team to love.
After the hour, Mauro Camoranesi had Italy's best chance when a moment of indecision in Spain's penalty area allowed him to volley a half-cleared shot. Casillas got his hand to it on the line. Luis Aragones made the bravest decision of the evening – although perhaps not what most Spanish fans had in mind - when he replaced Torres with Daniel Guiza.
As the game reached penalties it was a question of who would buckle first. Given Spain's ascendancy in the game you suspected that they would give way but they handled the pressure much better with only Guiza missing from the spot.
Casillas is a difficult man to beat – Aragones said later that he put a lot of work into studying the habits of Italy's penalty-takers – but the prize went to Fabregas. In all the hullabaloo surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo, we almost forgot what a little diamond Arsenal have in their midfielder.
*Germany v Turkey
25 June, Basle (7.45), BBC 1
*Russia v Spain
26 June, Vienna (7.45), ITV