Wounded and at bay, Italy may find this a step too far
Scandals, suspensions and injuries have taken their toll on Cesare Prandelli's team
"Fill Europe with Blue" runs the slogan on the Italy team bus, although the dominant colour of the Gdansk Arena is amber, to commemorate the trade that made this the wealthiest seaport on the Baltic. Cesare Prandelli's team are, however, immersed in a deeper shade of brown.
The dawn raid on Italian football headquarters at Coverciano, near Florence, produced the kind of shockwaves that make the divisions between John Terry and Rio Ferdinand seem mere cocktail chatter. Unlike Domenico Criscito, Terry had not been forced to open his door by police, to have his room searched and to be told he was under investigation for match fixing.
They had photographs and, although the left-back said they were "just ones of me having dinner with some Genoa fans", one of them happened to be of a Bosnian alleged to have deep roots in the underworld of sport. Suddenly Italy were propelled towards 1982 and 2006, when they had won World Cups in the teeth of similar scandals that enveloped respectively Paolo Rossi and Juventus. They had gone to each tournament feeling like criminals and emerged with the greatest prize of all. So ran the commentaries.
As Barcelona's Gerard Pique pointed out before preparing to face the Italians this evening: "It seems Italy are not focused; that they are hurt but it is just when you think they will do a bad job that they do the best job."
It is to Prandelli's credit that he dismissed this kind of talk as cliché and claptrap. Prandelli acted decisively in a way that the FA did not with Terry. Criscito was dropped immediately and, given that Prandelli had invited Simone Farina, a Serie B player who turned down 200,000 euros to fix a match, to train with the Azzurri he could probably do nothing else, although he deprived himself of his best left-back.
"The pressure would be more than any human being could bear," said Prandelli, although Leonardo Bonucci, also under investigation albeit on flimsier evidence, is likely to face Spain beneath the amber stands. Both manager and captain have paid a price for the bribery allegations that have left their tidemark on Italian football. When in 2006 Calciopoli – the attempts by Juventus and others to influence referees – burst its banks, Gianluigi Buffon, who would rank with Dino Zoff as the greatest goalkeeper to have played for Italy, found himself relegated to Serie B with Juventus. Prandelli had taken Fiorentina to qualification for the Champions League. Now, they found themselves 15th.
In Germany six years ago, Marcello Lippi had used Calciopoli to instil a siege mentality that saw Italy win the World Cup while conceding two goals in the tournament. Maybe this was what Buffon, who had been accused by the Italian media of handing over 1.5m euros to a betting shop – in return for 20 Rolex watches, was his explanation – to make an impassioned appeal on his Facebook page.
"Your support will be decisive," is how he began his address to Italian fans who were outnumbered on Gdansk's elegant streets by those from Spain. "It would be the strongest signal against those who want to create divisions between us and you. Start thinking for yourselves and don't be fooled by those who want to stir up trouble."
Even without the scandal, there would be question marks over this Italian team, who planned two warm-ups for the tournament. The first, against Luxembourg – a strange choice of opponent in any case – was cancelled because of an earthquake. The second, against Russia, was lost 3-0.
Had Giuseppe Rossi not wrecked his cruciate ligaments and had Antonio Cassano not suffered a form of heart failure as his Milan side flew home after a 3-2 win in Rome, there would have been fewer doubts.
Earlier this season, Prandelli had suspended Mario Balotelli. Now after the young striker became the latest victim of racism, this time from the internet's wilder shores, his manager said he would "give him a hug" if it spread to the stands, adding that he expected the striker to do his talking on the pitch. Right now, the pitch, even facing Spain, is probably where Italy feel safest.
A date of destiny
You can almost date when Spain and Italy's paths began to diverge: 22 June 2008 – the night of their European Championship quarter-final. Italy were world champions and had never lost a competitive game to Spain. It finished goalless and a penalty shoot-out was won by Cesc Fabregas.
"We knew this would be the key game," said Xabi Alonso. "Spain had been eliminated in so many quarter-finals or last-16 games and we wanted to change this history. It was the moment that we knew was a turning point and it took a burden off our backs. It set us free."
In the final in the same stadium, the Ernst Happel, Fernando Torres would dance past Philipp Lahm and clip the ball over Jens Lehmann to win Spain a first trophy since 1964.
There would be further drama at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where Italy's attempts to defend their trophy floundered in humiliations against New Zealand and Slovakia.
After Torres' World Cup-winning goal two years ago, the Chelsea forward spent a year left out of Spain squads. But Vicente Del Bosque is likely to ask him to lead his attack in Group C's pivotal match.
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