x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Euro 2012: Italy's romance rejuvenated

Prandelli has revamped the calcio, with some inspiration from the rivals in tonight's final, writes Ian Hawkey.

Cesare Prandelli has revamped his side to play a more possession-and-passing game style.
Cesare Prandelli has revamped his side to play a more possession-and-passing game style.

More than 23 million Italians turned to television on Thursday to watch their national team's European 2012 semi-final against Germany.

Fewer than 23m will have expected the outcome to be so emphatic, a 2-1 win in which the opposition scored only on a late penalty. But the viewing figures delighted TV executives, as well as Cesare Prandelli, Italy's coach.

Prandelli's mission, on taking charge of the Azzurri and sifting through the debris of their World Cup collapse in South Africa two years ago, had been "to make Italians fall in love again with the national team".

At the time, the idea sounded fanciful. Italy, winners of four World Cups, had become associated with too much that looked unappealing in modern sport: its domestic league suffered damaging corruption scandals, notably the manipulation of referees for which Juventus, Italy's most successful club, were punished with relegation in 2006.

The following year a policeman was killed in violence ahead of a Serie A match in Sicily. The national team's fortunes plunged with a quarter-final exit at the European championship of 2008.

Defending their world title in South Africa, they were dreadful, unable to win any of their three group matches, held to a draw by New Zealand and on their way home before the knockout stage.

The football Italy played had become crabby and conservative. There is a stereotype pinned on "calcio", as football is called in the Italian peninsula, that it is fundamentally reactive, that Italian teams defend stoutly in numbers as a priority, and rarely concern themselves with entertainment or enterprise.

Sometimes the image is a little inaccurate; sometimes it is used by opponents to sneer at Italians.

Prandelli, who had been admired for the more fluent football he encouraged at middle-ranking clubs like Verona and Parma, thought it was time for an overhaul when he assumed the job of national coach.

The sport itself, he concluded, had developed in a way that made a typical Italian approach seem outmoded and probably ineffective.

He was not alone in thinking that. Part of the legacy given to the sport by Spain, Italy's opponent in the title match in Kiev tonight, is to question assumptions.

With their tiny midfielders, the Spanish are a team notably short of physical power.

They sometimes line up without a player resembling an orthodox target at the spearhead of their attack.

They believe in imposing themselves with fine, accurate passing. It was worked brilliantly for four years for them and for Barcelona, who supply much of Spain's personnel and self-confidence.

Prandelli admires modern Spain and willingly moved his New Italy in the direction of a passing, possession game. "We wanted to try to play a football people liked to watch, to change the philosophy," he said from the squad's base in the Polish city of Krakow, before setting off for Kiev.

"But also I wanted retain the good Italian aspects: we are solid at the back still."

His Italy also have had an energy about them in midfield, where the industry of players like Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio allows the best passer, Andrea Pirlo, time to calculate and deliver.

There is a charisma, too, in the roguish young striker Mario Balotelli, scorer of the two goals in the semi-final. Not all Italians love the attention-seeking Balotelli, but plenty among the 23m who watched on Thursday night are now more enamoured of him.

Many neutrals around the world will feel attracted by the idea of Italy deposing Spain as champions. Admiration for Spain's technique has given way among some spectators to an exasperation with the way Spain can anaesthetise a match with their monopoly on possession.

The Spaniards also suffer slightly for having the fine skills and control of matches that Barcelona have, without the ability to score as many goals

Spain do not have Lionel Messi, as Barca do, for which they can hardly be blamed.

Tonight, they start as narrow favourites, respected and admired, but with a strong suspicion that the New Italy have stolen a few hearts already.

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