Despite so many of the experts’ predictions, the grandeur Spain v Germany UEFA European Football Championships Final will not occur on Sunday. Instead, Spain will play for their third straight major championship against a national team with a long history of winning tournaments: Italy. The Barcelona-Serie A-like clash will allow the entire world to see, without a doubt, which nation is the dominant team in the most dominant football confederation in the world right now.
Italy has long been a historical force in football. They’ve won four FIFA World Cups, including the supremely difficult back-to-back in 1934 and 1938. Long in history have the Italians stood close to the Brazilians in the echelon of soccer excellence, seemingly always coming around to win tournaments from time to time, when you least expect them to. The blue colors have been a constant sight, as they have qualified for 13 straight World Cups. They won a major tournament fairly recently, taking the 2006 World Cup in Germany, so it isn’t as if they are a faded record. Winning EURO 2012 would make Italy even more prominent on the map of the national teams. Since EURO 2008, in which they lost in the Quarter-finals to Spain in a penalty shootout, Italy has accumulated 25 wins, 11 losses, and 18 draws. This is far lass dominant than Spain over the same time period, but their history is still strong and Serie A is a force in many tournaments, practically always getting a club into the Knockout Stage of the UEFA Champions League. Italy hangs around and could become dominant if they beat Spain on Sunday, entering the best team conversation with Spain and Germany.
Spain, however, is a relatively new power in football, but they have quickly made a case that they are one of the best ever. They are in their third straight final at a major tournament and look to go 3-0 in that time, which has never been done (if you’re not counting the Olympics). Since they won EURO 2008, the Spaniards have had an absurd record of 50 wins, 6 losses, 4 draws – double the amount of wins Italy has had during that time. Every time a team goes out to face Spain now, the nerves show on even the most celebrated players in the world. Mario Gomez, Wayne Rooney, and even Cristiano Ronaldo have to play their A game against them, if they want a chance. Their legend of a Goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, their solid back four, and their odd combination of six midfielders to score goals may not be the most exciting formula to win soccer games, but over the last four years, it has been the most productive one. Every time a team has beaten Spain since 2008, it has gone down as an instant classic and feels like a championship victory for the other side. This Spanish are that dominant and lose that rarely.
Unlike Spain, the Italian side has been very fortunate to get through as they have in these European Championships. After two straight draws to open the Group Stage, Italy managed to scrape through to the Quarter-finals thanks to a weak Ireland side providing them easy points in their third match, and because Croatia and Spain, two good teams, were put against each other in the same group. Those two teams made sure they didn’t tie, ensuring Italy didn’t get knocked out automatically. But if the draw was a little different and if Ireland scored more, the Azzurri would not have even sniffed the Knockout Stage.
After that, Italy nearly coughed up a sure-win against England in the Quarter-finals. The English decided to be patient and waited for opportunities, opting to not be aggressive against the more dynamic Italian side. Instead of taking advantage of this passiveness, the Italians missed easy goal chances and barely advanced on a penalty shootout. Another scare, another fortuitous advance for Italy.
Italy may have conquered Germany in the Semi-finals by converting opportunities, but they haven’t been the dominant favorite in this tournament. Spain has won all but one match in the entire competition: their opening clash with Italy. They’ve played patiently, passing slowly and surely, looking for one mismatch by their opponents so they could score with middies. Despite this less-than exciting play, the Spanish have hardly had scares in EURO 2012. They’ve shown dominant skill that Italy has so often lacked in the last four years. They’ve stuck to their game plan and worked as a cohesive unit – unlike rollercoaster Italy. The amount of talent clad in red and yellow is ridiculous – Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Fernando Llorente, some of the best players in the world, barely even see the pitch because there are so many other better options (never, in the case of Mata and Llorente). The only team that might have as much talent available as Spain, might be Germany, a team filled with giants.
Yet, Italy hasn’t been off the map completely. In every major tournament recently, Italy has been ranked as one of the best teams in the world, close to the behemoths of Germany, Brazil, Uruguay, England, Portugal, France, Netherlands, and, of course, Spain. In their last three major tournaments, Italy has made it to at least the Knockout Stage twice (EURO 2008 and EURO 2012). They make up for their lack of overbearing performances by winning just enough matches, and displaying a great deal of lively talent. Poise and malleability isn’t their game; they can put on a show of energy, emotion, and offensive prowess.
The EURO 2012 Final is like a match up of La Liga v Serie A, determining which the better side is. Serie A, while riddled with controversy, is one of the top leagues on the planet and essentially all the players on this Italian national team play in it. Most players on the Spanish side are from La Liga, which produces some of the best club talent on Earth. The battle is such, as these two national teams aren’t a mix of players from different leagues from all over the world. They are Serie A and La Liga, and they play like Serie A and La Liga. It’s nearly unanimous that the class of La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona, trump the class of Serie A in respect to their performances, success, and disparity from the rest of Europe, and that La Liga teams have won many a recent Europa Leagues, but this final could truly put the question to rest: Which country is the best at football right now, Spain or Italy? Most of us have an answer already (Spain), but whoever wins this final could either end the doubts, or create more. Would Spain losing to Italy in the EURO 2012 Final show that this generation of players is no longer as prolific as they once were? These are the kind of blood thirsty questions us football commentators will ask if Gianluigi Buffon raises the Henri Delaunay Trophy on Sunday. A win for Italy could, at the very least, put them in the same discussion with Spain and Germany; a win for Spain, however, would settle all questions about where the prime of football is right now.