On the seventeenth of June 1970, Italy and West Germany played out a World Cup semi-final at The Azteca Stadium in Mexico City so epic that earned itself the soubriquet of The Match Of The Century. Perhaps the finest tribute ever paid to an individual football match ever made can be found outside the stadium, a permanent monument to what became known as The Game Of The Century, a 4-3 win for Italy after thirty minutes of extra-time which contained five goals. Pause to consider that – a match so affective that it caused people thousands of miles from the two nations that played it out to mark the fact that it had been played on their home patch. We may never see the likes of it again. This match has set an exceptionally high standards for matches between the two sides, but Italy inflicted a traumatic defeat upon Germany on the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup in Hamburg, and tonight they put in probably the most accomplished performance by any team in this tournament so far in a match which ended with a scoreline that was, if anything, very flattering on a German side that was made to look very ordinary indeed.
The headlines tomorrow morning will be written for one man, of course. Mario Balotelli is still two weeks short of his twenty-second birthday, but this evening he put in the complete strikers performance. His first goal, a powerful header from close range, came from an Antonio Cassano cross that saw his marker Holger Badstuber momentarily lose his bearings, and it was this goal that made the entire team lose theirs. They had started encouragingly, with it looking for much of the opening twenty minutes as if the evening would be destined to end in tears for Gianluigi Buffon, whose start to the game in goal for Italy was uncharaceristically unsure of itself. The opening goal, however, was not in the German script and they lost their focus after this, although there was little that any defence in the world could have done about the second goal, a diagonal pass from Montolivo through the eye of a needle for Balotelli, who controlled the ball perfectly before thundering and absolutely ferocious shot past Neuer to effectively end the match as a contest with nine minutes to play until half-time.
Of course, few would have suspected as much at half-time. Every Big Book Of German Cliches contains a chapter about the perils of writing them off contained in it, but after a brief flourish in the opening ten minutes of the second half, they folded, looking beaten and curiously disinterested until stoppage time penalty from Mezut Ozil made for a rousing last two and a half minutes, to the extent that it is, perhaps, worth considering what might have happened had they shown such urgency for the final twenty minutes rather than just the last two minutes. On the whole, however, the one goal difference between the two teams was flattering on Germany, and Italy had several opportunities to stretch their lead at two to nil. It would have been something of a travesty had the final result been anything other than an Italian win. Defensively, they were composed and assured. In midfield, they were fluid, quick to close down German runners looking for space and so inteligent in their use of the ball that they could turn defence into attack in a thrice. In attack, they had both Balotelli and the supply lines to be able to get the ball to him.
And here’s the thing. It has long felt as if the media circus that has surrounded Balotellis extra-curricular activities has masked the fact that he is so young and so extravagantly talented. He didn’t “grow up” tonight, of course. It’s considerably more layered than that. What we did see, however, was more than a glimpse of potential. It was a glimpse of power, positioning and sheer, natural, visceral ability. Balotelli has all of this, and he isn’t even twenty-two years old yet. The possibility of what he could become as a player is, frankly, frightening. In a broader sense, though, the Italian team truly came of age this evening. After a decent performance against Spain in their opening match, they were a little tepid against both The Republic of Ireland and Croatia, and then profligate against England. If they can repeat this performance on Sunday evening, they are more than capable of becoming the champions of Europe. Tonight’s match wasn’t an all-time classic in the same way that The Game Of The Century was. How could it have been? It was, however, an absorbing affair and in making Germany – this Germany team, about whom so many superlatives have been thrown around of late – look so ordinary, Italy were reserved yet exuberant. It was a masterful performance and they fully deserve their place in the final.
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