Very soon after the football authorities agreed that not only could coaches replace players who had been seriously injured, indeed even carried to within an inch of their lives, but also those who were playing so badly they were in danger of being disowned by their families, a strange new figure was born.
He was known as "Supersub". He spent a lot of time on the bench but was felt to be an ideal shock troop, someone you could send in when you were in desperate need of an injection of new life. Some were more consistent than others, notably a red-haired Liverpool player named David Fairclough. He lived in the shadows of Kevin Keegan and John Toshack but every so often he popped up to score a vital goal and enjoy some fleeting sunlight.
With all due respect to the admirable Fairclough, what we are seeing here at Euro 2008 is the ultimate lunatic expression of a very questionable principle. If a supersub was so super he would surely make it into the starting line-up, and this would be especially so if over a run of five matches he had proved to be not only his team's most vital, most willing and, by some distance, most creative player, he had also revealed himself as probably the best in all of Europe at what he did.
Of course, we are talking about Cesc Fabregas, not the least of whose astonishing triumphs in Spain's march to tomorrow's final against Germany is that he appears completely unburdened by the demand that he goes on to the field long after the formative stage of an essentially deadlocked match and then blow it utterly apart.
This has been the recurring request of the Spanish coach, Luis Aragones, and even now, after Fabregas's luminous performance against Russia in Thursday's semi-final, official anointment of the Arsenal man as the ultimate game-breaker, and thus worthy of a starting place, is in doubt. Although all indications are that the injury to striker David Villa will finally open the door for Fabregas at opening time, Aragones is still being coy, if the word can be applied to a man whose face runs all through the gamut of human expression from sour to belligerent, about his intentions.
On Thursday Fabregas's plight was not helped by the Uefa technical committee's decision to award Andres Iniesta man-of-the-match status after the destruction of the previously rampant Russians.
Certainly, it is true that the diminutive Barça playmaker had his best game at the business end of the tournament, as did his partner from the Nou Camp, Xavi. It is also right that these two combined beautifully to produce the first goal. However, until Fabregas appeared after 36 minutes the game was quite delicately balanced. No doubt Spain looked the stronger, but the possibilities of Guus Hiddink's team were not extinguished.
Within a quarter of an hour of Fabregas's arrival, though, the Russians were not only burnt out, Spain were kicking around in the embers.
There is also, surprisingly enough, a body of thought that still believes not only that Aragones has been sound in the matter of Fabregas but that he has evolved a perfect strategy.
What he is doing, we are told, is building a foundation of strength, rather like a fighter whose jab is working well, or a squadron of pattern bombers clearing away a path for the infantry, and then going for the kill. This would make a lot more sense if Spain's opponents had been on the point of quitting when Fabregas arrived late into the two knockout games. Instead of which, Italy had to be seen off by Fabregas's last shoot-out penalty after coming under increasing pressure from his running and passing in the final stages of both normal and extra time, and Russia's buckling came rather sooner largely because Supersub's entry was hastened by the injury of the striker Villa.
In all of this there is a slide into obscurity that is quite befuddling. It seems to be created by more than anything a reluctance to acknowledge that in a tournament that has offered a gallery of exceptional performances, notably from Ruud van Nistelrooy and Andrei Arshavin, Michael Ballack and Spain's own Marcos Senna, Fabregas has threatened to become the first player to dominate a major international championship while starting every game sitting down.
Quite astonishingly, it appears to have done nothing to retard his momentum. Nor does it seem to have provoked a single sullen sigh or snarl of irritation.
This was particularly so against the Russians. Fabregas spent the remains of the first half scampering to get to the pace of the game, then came out for a second so perfectly in tune with events that he did not squander a single opportunity to make some impact
The accumulated effect was simply devastating.
Will he have the same effect against Ballack's Germans tomorrow night, whatever time he sets foot on the field? The overwhelming conviction here is that he will – and perhaps in the process convince even Uefa's technical committee that he is indeed the man of the tournament.
Yes, we know about Germany. We know how they can retrieve glory from the dust of failure. We know how they can be systematically outplayed by a Turkish team at their wits' ends and the end of their resources and still set Chancellor Merkel dancing, almost convincingly, in the stands.
Yet however much mystique you conjure, ultimately you are at the mercy of superior talent and technique. Germany found this out against Italy in the semi-final of the last World Cup and however much you admire their tenacity it is impossible not to believe that Spain are about to administer the same lesson.
Some of us, probably out of admiration for their coach, Hiddink, and the wonderful eruption of their star player, Arshavin, against the Netherlands, held a sneaking regard for the Russian chances this week.
Yet in the end they were rendered romantic at best. The Spanish had too much craft, too much strength and, when Fabregas came on the field, too much much sheer brilliance.
These will be the decisive factors tomorrow night. Spain will win, probably by two goals, and this will be underpinned most firmly if Cesc Fabregas finally receives the recognition that has so far been denied him by his coach.
It is the right to start a game. It is a fundamental expectation for such a gifted – and committed – player. It also conforms to the game's oldest truth: a coach, however astute in his tactics, is morally obliged to pick his best team.
Traditional Italian tale of disgrace and atonement offers England a parable
If we ignore Portugal and their various distractions, and the comically misdirected French, there is no question about the worst showing here.
It was by the world champions Italy. They scuffled for crumbs, they had a striker in Luca Toni who was so bad some fans demanded that he be examined to confirm that he possessed a single Italian gene, and their coach, Roberto Donadoni, apparently lost the players long before the first kick-off.
Yet, if it is a bleak story, it does have a traditional Italian redemption.
Donadoni lingered in the job just long enough to clear his desk. He accepted the immutable law of Italian international football that that if you do not succeed, you go.
Yet, by English standards, Donadoni was not exactly a disaster, was he? He lost a shoot-out to one of the favourites in a quarter-final. When this happened to Sven Goran Eriksson, after losing to a 10-man Brazil and complaining that his boys did not pass too well, not only did he keep his job but was awarded a new contract.
Of course, Eriksson fell three times in the quarter-finals before he went, and this was not so much because of chronic failure but a newspaper sting.
England's absence here has, rightly, been described as a point of absolute breakdown. But at least we have gone to the right place for a solution. Italy do not linger over failure. They do something about it. They go out and find someone equal to the job. It is perhaps why, even now, they stand second only to Brazil in the rankings of world football.Reuse content