Italy’s best tactical move since last Thursday, when their football team beat Germany to qualify for the Euro2012 final, was made by President Giorgio Napolitano, who invited the Azzurri to visit him at his presidential palace on Monday, win or lose.
Lose, they did. Sunday’s 4-0 defeat became Italy’s worst ever result in the final stages of European Championship or World Cup finals.
Their second worst was in the 1970 World Cup final, when an Azzurri team which had not been expected to go that far (have we heard this before?) were beaten 4-1 by Brazil. Angry fans pelted the returning party with tomatoes and rotten eggs, their ire directed more at coach Ferruccio Valcareggi, for his selection policy, than at the players, in what remains a shameful moment in a long list of indecent behaviour by calcio supporters.
Seldom has defeat been accepted in a country with a poor culture of sportsmanship (during Sunday’s final the main megascreen in Rome’s Circo Massimo had to be turned off after flares, bottles and flagpoles were thrown at it late in the second half), but Napolitano’s gesture sent a message of goodwill and decency which is, sadly, not likely to be taken by as many as it should, despite the fact the whole thing will be broadcast live.
Italy couldn’t keep up with Spain in Kiev: they were clearly the inferior side, and while they had a decent spell after going behind for the first time in the tournament, Jordi Alba’s goal, via that fantastic pass from Xavi, basically ended the game. Football being football, sometimes a single toe-poke in a goalmouth scramble can bring a side back and crack the confidence of even the most dominating sides, but Antonio Di Natale, a half-time sub for the quiet Antonio Cassano, missed twice at the beginning of the second half and Thiago Motta’s injury, which left Italy with ten men for the last 28 minutes, left a tired, dejected side at the mercy of their opponents.
Judging from Monday’s reactions, most Italians have gone down the “thank you guys, you did well anyway” route, which is encouraging, but those who use at social network sites or listen to phone-in shows - perhaps giving too much weight to opinions of individuals who may be complete jerks, as I am myself doing - will have noticed sour attitudes were creeping back into the mainstream before the first half of Sunday’s game had ended.
You could clearly detect it was not Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini who had let Cesc Fabregas steal two yards on him, it was Juve’s Giorgio Chiellini. Just as Alba had not left Italy’s Ignazio Abate in his wake, but Milan’s Ignazio Abate. In short, club allegiances, which had been mostly pushed into the background during Italy’s progress through the knockout stage, were making a triumphant comeback as soon as things started going wrong.
As soon as I turned on my car radio on Monday morning, someone with a heavy Neapolitan accent was telling the hosts of a phone-in show that Christian Maggio should have started in place of Abate - guess where Maggio plays club football? Yes, Napoli.
That’s why a win would perhaps have benefitted the whole of Italian football, if only for a while. I’ve already written that the great tournament the Azzurri had does not mean, in my opinion, Italian football is back, or that Serie A has gotten stronger - although an embarrassing editorial saying Italy’s top division is better than La Liga, the Premier League and the Bundesliga did, predictably, appear in one of the sports dailies, who never fail to disappoint on the populist front. Winning the whole thing, though, could have given us a respite from the constant verbal warfare between fans of rival Serie A clubs.
It would still be nice if, from now on, every time team sheets are read before a Serie A match next season each of the Italy squad members be introduced as “vice campione d’Europa” (meaning a losing finalist, but with a positive twist), reminding fans that there was something good that guy did in the summer. I am under no illusion this would have worked. However, even if Italy had won the tournament it’s perhaps delusional to believe Roma’s Daniele De Rossi would be cheered by Lazio fans.
Gratitude is usually in short supply when club allegiances come into play and despite pleas like the one made on Sunday after the game in a short exchange between the Rai studio hosts, Gianluigi Buffon and Italian FA chairman Giancarlo Abete, the Azzurri will quickly fade from memory. We will be back to a routine of disappointing crowds for 2014 World Cup qualifying matches, unless hundreds of kids from the academy are bussed in with free tickets, as usual.
Cesare Prandelli reminded the media of this stark reality when he mentioned the fact most questions before Italy’s friendly with the USA last February concerned Milan and Juventus, as if the Azzurri and their preparation towards Euro 2012 were just a nuisance to be dealt with in the least intrusive way.
The jester hats and multicoloured wigs, which are quite untypical of the average Italian football fan, will be put away and it will be back to the grind of reciprocal accusations, controversies, innuendos and verbal attacks.
Napolitano and the Azzurri, with their refusal to find excuses after the defeat on Sunday yet again confirmed they were more dignified and poised than most of the media and the fans following their every step. However, it is a lesson that few, sadly, will heed.