Everybody has their bogey team, and so it has been for Spain against Italy for almost ninety years. No competitive wins against them since 1920, and the massive feeling of injustice brought about by the 1994 World Cup. Of all the teams that they could possibly have been drawn against in the quarter-finals, Italy was the only one that could have given this resurgent Spanish team cause for serious psychological concern. There is an element of self-determination in the Spanish perception of Italian football. The Italians always cheat, always go for the gamesmanship, get away with the refereeing decisions and ride their luck. Spain, by contrast, always play football, never have any luck and always end up losing – usually against Italy. It is a chip on the national shoulder, an itch which they have not been able to scratch in living memory. Until now, that is. Last night’s victory on penalties against Italy was more than just a win for Spain. It was a psychological exorcism.
The Spanish media is second only to the British in terms of its hyperbole and hubris, and the build up to this match was an exemplary display on their part of getting the excuses in early. At the top of the list of Spanish grievances is the 1994 World Cup quarter-final against Italy. “If there is an image that sums up Italy v Spain meetings it’s the bloody face of a crying Luis Enrique after getting an elbow that referee Sándor Puhl didn’t see – or didn’t want to see”, says La Marca, Spain’s biggest selling newspaper, all of which chooses to overlook Spanish substitute Julio Salinas missing a fairly straightforward one on one against Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca with five minutes left to play which would have almost certinly sent Spain through to the semi-finals. It’s far easier to blame your shortcomings on others than it is to look questioningly at your own performances. The Spanish media had the excuses lined up in swathes should their team have failed to perform against Italy last night. In fairness, though, the Italians did make this somewhat easier for them by reacting to the absence of Andrea Pirlo by opting to retreat back into a defensive formation, one which gave the impression that they were playing for penalties from the very start of the match.
So it was that we were treated to one of the more forgettable one hundred and twenty minutes of football of the tournament so far. There was really only one significant moment of excitement for either team. Just after the hour, Spain failed to clear an Italian attack successfully, only for Maur Camoranesi’s shot to be brilliantly blocked by the foot of Iker Casillas, and with ten minutes to play, Buffon fumbled a long range shot from the impressive Marcos Senna which dribbled agonisingly against the post and back into the grateful goalkeeper’s arms. Other than that, it was a largly sterile match, with Italy frequently keeping seven or eight men behind the ball. Such a tactic might not have been to the taste of the watching neutral, but it did at least have effect of rendering the much vaunted Spanish attacking pairing of David Villa and Fernando Torres ineffective, to the extent that Torres withdrawn for Daniel Guiza with five minutes left to play.
Although the match opened up a little in extra-time, there was still something crushingly inevitable about the goal-less final scoreline and the penalty shoot-out that would come as a result of it. Finally, Spain had a big enough character to win the match for them, in the form of the Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who saved from De Rossi and Guiza to give them a decisive advantage, before Cesc Fabregas, showing the cool detachment which goes some of the way towards explaining his success at club level, sent Buffon the wrong way to send Italy out and Spain into the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1984 European Championships. Italy’s negativity, ultimately, received what it deserved. Donadoni had retreated into a cautiously defensive shell when faced with attacking flair and one cannot help but feel that the moral satisfaction felt at the Spanish victory goes some way towards negating the frustration felt at seeing two such talented sides play out a largely lifeless match. We might not again see such drama as we saw in the earlier rounds of the competition, but with Italy out, and Spain, Russia, Germany and Turkey playing out the semi-finals later in the week, we have at least a fighting chance of more football in keeping with what has preceded it.