The last thing Spain need, as they tie themselves in such knots of self-parody, is to meet opponents delivered so effervescently of their own shackles. For this Italian renaissance sets the finalists either side of a new, revisionist fault-line in European football. On one side, fresh belief; on the other, fresh doubt.
Suddenly the ethereal image of the Spanish game seems contaminated by a doctrinaire, onanistic quality, where possession becomes primarily a form of defence – a sedative. And Italy, meanwhile, are taking us back to the future.
Internazionale's defeat of Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final not only provided a fig leaf for the Italian game, which would so soon be laid bare by the holders' disgrace at the World Cup in South Africa. (There were no Italians in the Inter team, of course.) It also seemed to set a crisis agenda in football, lining up forces of light and darkness – too simplistic a divide, no doubt, but one that extended into the same competition this season. But Barcelona have Messi. With no such outlet, and abjuring a more conventional one, Spain will have forfeited the support of many neutrals tomorrow.
As it happens, both Inter and Chelsea ended up beating the same team in their respective finals – and the time has come to ask why so many Bayern players should again have hesitated before their apparent destiny. In such time as he was allowed against Italy, for instance, Mario Gomez miserably reprised his leaden display against Chelsea.
It is premature, however, to doubt the bottle of this gilded German generation. For all the experience they have compressed into so short a time, they remained the youngest team in this tournament, and Reus, Götze, Kroos and Schürrle will fortify any weakening links before the 2014 World Cup. And, chastening as their semi-final proved, it was terminally skewed by that break-out second goal. Joachim Löw, likewise, is still learning. The blooding of the young thrusters against Greece had been inspired. Reus and Schürrle felt trusted, even as the stakes were ostensibly being raised. This was the first knockout game, after all. They would now feel ready to fill any gaps caused by injury or suspension.
In reality, after a brutal group, Löw recognised that this would be his only straightforward game of the tournament. In again dropping Müller against Italy, however – this time for a very different player in Kroos – he seemed guilty of a deliberately ostentatious flourish. Where he sought an air of decision, he ended up falling between stools. He oscillated fatally between adapting to Cesare Prandelli's wily, rotating diamond, and persevering with the mission that had suffused his innocents with such energy and evangelism.
They have little experience of adversity and, the snow-capped Neuer apart, betrayed a corresponding lack of leadership. Khedira had an excellent tournament, but was deployed too far up the field with Schweinsteiger clearly unfit. And Hummels, still only 23, had yet to endure the sort of painful initiation required on any journey to greatness. All the bricks are in place for Germany. It's just that the mortar is not yet dry. Contrary to all the inevitable clichés, the team actually lacked a bit of arrogance.
At 33, after all, Andrea Pirlo is 10 years older than Mesut Özil and – though some pundits evidently discovered him only in that masterclass against an antediluvian England formation – has won three Serie A titles, the Champions League twice, and a World Cup.
But nor is Pirlo's rejuvenation Prandelli's only debt to Antonio Conte, the Juventus manager. Marchisio has been an unsung gem, while Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini were magnificent as the Germans pounded the portcullis. Perhaps significantly, this Turin spine had been spared a draining European club campaign. By the same token, however, it brought little obvious clout. Perhaps, then, this epic semi-final should prepare us for Champions League fireworks – not just from Juventus, but also from Dortmund, the team that first discovered Bayern's glass jaw.
Certainly the vibrant quality of this match is better credited to young, innovative coaches in both Serie A and the Bundesliga than to the tired axiom that the Italians are always most dangerous in the throes of scandal. For Prandelli has created the very opposite of a siege mentality. Yes, the domestic game remains fettered to the bad old days: through a new corruption scandal, most obviously, but also racism and violence and dilapidation. But Prandelli's trust in Balotelli and Cassano – both too flighty for Marcello Lippi – sets a new course of humility, contrition, reformation.
Back home, they are saluting an "Italy with a smile." Perhaps Spain will end up wishing they had indulged in some match-fixing of their own. A 2-2 draw with Croatia would have conveniently eliminated Italy. Instead the whole continent – even, ungrudgingly, many of us with an allegiance to Germany – has celebrated L'Italia del sorriso.
Euro 2012 has dismantled many stereotypes, even as it has assembled new ones. And its denouement may now invert the accepted caricature of footballing decadence. For it is Italy who have joined and, for now, passed Germany on what remains a common tide of dynamism and renewal. And it is Spain who must decide whether they remain pioneers, or have turned into apparatchiks.Reuse content