So the Italians are back. Back as the absolute masters of tournament play. The team that always finds a way to do the right thing. That much-needed tying goal against England in the Euro Nations final came from ... who? A center back if you please, Leonardo Bonucci -- with the decidedly unglamourous stat of having scored a goal only once every 15 games.
Never you mind -- there has always been a lot of the “cometh the hour, cometh the man” about the Italians -- remember Paolo Rossi in 1982? or Andrea Pirlo in 2006? (three Man-of-the-match awards, yet overlooked in the all-tournament individual awards).
So Bonucci got the vital goal, hardly a thing of beauty, but Gianluigi Donnarumma took the player of the tournament award. The goalkeeper -- and that’ll tell you that the Italians still play a basically defensive game.
Or maybe not. Because I feel pretty sure that Donnarumma secured his award by saving the final pair of England’s kicks in the shootout. Which to me is a totally absurd situation. The shootout is not part of the game -- but a horrible excrescence tacked on at the end.
Just how horrible could be seen as Bukayo Saka -- 19 years old -- saw his deciding shot saved. Is it fair, is it human, to saddle one player, a teenager, with the responsibility of losing, not just a game, but a whole tournament, even, as in this case, to have him publicly humiliated as he destroys the extravagant hopes of a whole country? Poor Saka, no way he deserved that, anymore than he should have had to suffer the online racial abuse.
How on earth did he, the least experienced of England’s kickers, come to be taking the crucial fifth kick? There will be a smooth explanation, I suppose, which I don’t want to hear.
The instant that Donnarumma’s save won the trophy for Italy, the reliable English melodramatic mush began. Over and over, we were told that English fans were “heart broken,” that this was a “heart-breaking” way to lose. Those poor English fans.
I could see nothing particularly heart-breaking about the loss. Just like the Italians, the English were back. Back where they have proved for 55 years that they probably belong, as the almost team. I was in Wembley (the old Wembley) in 1966 for the World Cup final. The victory over West Germany, England’s finest hour (though tainted by the famous ball-over-the-goal-line controversy). And since then . . . nothing, just 55 years of never being good enough.
That’s a hell of a long time to keep hope and belief alive, but the English have managed to do that -- right up until last Sunday, when it really did seem that this blind faith was about to be rewarded. England, at last, in a major final again. EURO 2020. And at Wembley. And a rip-roaring start with a goal against Italy after just two minutes. What could go wrong this time?
Oh, just about everything. Super-early goals are far from being the unalloyed prize they seem. OK -- for the team that surrenders the goal -- Italy in this case - they bring stark reality, and a clear objective: to score the tying goal. And it has virtually the whole game to do it.
But for the scoring team, the team with the immediate advantage -- England -- that early goal was more of an albatross than a gift. Soccer has developed over the past decades, into a low-scoring sport. Goals are not plentiful. 1-0 games abound. So too do the wretched 0-0 ties.
Soccer’s official response to this clear trend has been utterly pathetic. In fact there has been no real response, no attempt to tweak the rules, or to make major changes, to encourage goalscoring.
FIFA, and the hopelessly inadequate IFAB, have simply accepted the low scores and the increasingly dour games they produce. As for the problem of getting a result when 0-0 and 1-1 games crop up so often -- well, you know the sport’s answer: the shootout.
If we can’t get real goals to decide a game, then we’ll have a dopy coda to the tied games, complete with synthetic goals. That’s where the sport is. Now, there’s something to feel heart-broken about.
England, burdened with that early goal, dithered. To go all-out for the second, surely decisive goal? Or to play it safe? Take no risks and rely on the undoubtable fact that plenty of games end 1-0.
So we got an indecisive England against a determined Italy. The indecision seemed to infect even the shootout. Those last two kicks mirrored England’s game performance -- a lack of accuracy (too close to the keeper), and indecision -- both were struck without conviction, not hit hard enough. The game stats make it clear that the Italians were the team that was trying to make things happen.
A final thought on the game. I’m allowed to wonder what the English reaction would have been had they won. I’m sure of one thing, the losing Italians would not have been sympathetically described as “heart-broken”. They would have been “gutted.” Betcha.
The day before all those hearts were broken and, presumably, tears were shed, we saw Argentina win the South American title. At last, Lionel Messi, as captain, has won a major title with the national team.
Nobody, I’m sure, will begrudge him that honor, though the sad truth was that he had little impact on this game. Messi in Argentine colors remains a pale shadow of the Barcelona Messi.
I found the game itself to be in the “not bad” category -- which, frankly, is not good enough for these two famous teams. This should have been a festival of all that is best in South American soccer.
It was far from that. The winning goal (yes, this was a 1-0 game) from Angel Di Maria was a beauty -- a long raking pass, an awkwardly bouncing ball that Di Maria controlled with sublime grace before, on the run, smoothly, almost gently, lobbing the ball perfectly over the Brazilian goalkeeper.
There were other moments of virtuoso individual skill. But not enough, not the way it used to be down there. In this column, some 10 years ago, I asked “How much longer can South American soccer last?” I was worrying about the way that European clubs were snapping up -- at ever-younger ages -- the South American stars.
That process has surely reached a climax -- with this final being seen by many as Messi vs Neymar, the two biggest names, both of whom play in Europe. Which is merely the tip of the iceberg -- 20 of the 22 players who started the final play for European clubs.
As for the coaches -- Brazil’s Tite, has no Euro connections at all, while Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni’s 20-year playing career was spent mostly in Spain and Italy.
It is quite impossible that such an overwhelming Euro presence does not bring with it a Euro-influenced approach to the game.
I feel quite certain that I see that influence at work in the current Brazil and Argentina teams. No, I don’t like it. Those two teams, the cream of the South American crop, produced a final low on individual player brilliance -- once a sure-fire element in all such teams. The deadening encroachment of tactics and systems is making itself felt.