James Lawton: Italy redeem their soul with moral bravery and technical bravura

Pirlo fashioned the decisive action with a sensational little pass to Grosso
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The Independent Football

The Germans, brilliant hosts and warrior contenders in the 18th World Cup, performed once again with tremendous effort. They had a competitive character set deeply into an astonishing national tradition of consistently high achievement, but there was rarely a moment's doubt about the team more likely to claim the first available place in Sunday's final.

The Italian captain, Fabio Cannavaro, not only confirmed the ticket to Berlin but insisted that the journey would be made in the most opulent Pullman riding the tracks of international football.

This was a semi-final - normally a taut and abrasive affair at this level of the game - that glittered like the chandeliers in the prime of the Orient Express. Long before the end of the action in Dortmund, the fortress where the Fatherland is not supposed to lose, Italy's players had made the scandals and pain back home seem like a whole series of bizarre misadventures.

Such corruption does not melt away in the blaze of one World Cup campaign - or arguably the most appealing performance of the Azzurri since they overwhelmed West Germany in the 1982 final in Madrid. But it is shown up as an appalling intrusion into what, potentially, may reveal some of the best values in Italian life.

Instead cynicism, on and off the field, has been a mostly unshakeable burden. Ideals have been bludgeoned by both paranoia - and a sense of impending criminality.

Now, in Dortmund, il calcio has at least made a valuable statement as the piazzas are filled with celebration from the shores of Lake Garda to the southernmost tip of Sicily. It has said the game is indeed worth cleaning up, whether it is with judicial strength or simply a massive hose.

Francesco Totti will no doubt continue to be the celebrity star of the Italian game, and he certainly shook himself out of his recent torpor and self-indulgence with some moments of genuine invention, but for the heart of Italian splendour in the dark you could not look beyond the magnificent Cannavaro - or the best midfielder, Andrea Pirlo.

Pirlo fashioned the moment of decisive action when he delivered a sensational little pass to Fabio Grosso, a man widely condemned as a cheat when he sprawled for the penalty that gave Italy their last-second win over Australia in the second round. This time Grosso responded with utterly unbesmirched brilliance, curling his shot beyond the dumbfounded German hero Jens Lehmann.

But then always there was Cannavaro, the blue-eyed Neapolitan who has been so warmly clutched to the heart of all of Italy these last weeks. It has seemed that Cannavaro, marooned at one of the clubs most deeply implicated in the scandal, Juventus, has been involved in a one-man campaign for redemption. One admirer in a Brazilian camp distressed at its own failures to meet the challenge of this brilliant, ever-changing World Cup, had a strong sense that the Italians were maybe the most committed team in this tournament, a formidable attribute given their perennial levels of technical accomplishment. He said: "The Italians under Marcello Lippi seem to be playing for their football souls, saying, 'Look, we've left the match-fixers and the influence-peddlers behind, we can win matches on our own. We don't need people sneaking around the shadows, fixing games, subverting referees'."

If that seemed an impossibly romantic speech, there was no doubt it had acquired a much greater resonance as Italy finally applied beautifully administered sword strokes to the dream fashioned so passionately, and coherently, by the German coach, Jürgen Klinsmann. There was no slacking before the denouement, but unmistakable signs of heavy legs and an exhausted will. Maybe this was inevitable because at no point, not even when the captain, Michael Ballack, went marauding, did the Italians give much hope to a team they had whipped 4-1 in a pre-tournament friendly. Indeed, they did precisely the opposite with some early, high-tempo passing and wonderfully fluent little patterns radiating out of midfield.

The Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, said that he could not have been more proud of his players. They had responded to vast emotional pressure - and a series of slights in the German media - with a performance that was as morally brave as it was technically brilliant.

Meanwhile, English observers could only sigh at the gap between the Italian wit, and performance, and the failed efforts of their own team. It was particularly depressing to reflect that after an appalling breakdown of technique early in the tournament, England worked on passing - and patience. The Italians reminded us that they generally do their passing practice in their sleep, and as for patience, well, you simply wait for an opportunity and then strike. It is a matter of formality, habit, a bit like taking a pick-me-up espresso in the late afternoon.

But then England - who last played in a World Cup final 40 years ago, Italy now appearing in their fourth in that time - remain in a state of denial. The lingering and now official resistance to the dismissal of Wayne Rooney is one example. Italian football may be involved in the greatest crisis of its life, but in all the anger and the strife and the disgust it has remembered how to present the best of itself at the highest level out on the field. For England, we were reminded in Dortmund, that remains the most distant dream.