History shouldn’t matter in international soccer, should it?
I look at the players who will take the field for Spain against Italy today in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN), and I think: these Spanish players—supremely talented, meticulously prepared, forged in the world’s toughest leagues—have nothing to do with the Spanish players who lost to Italy in the 1994 World Cup quarterfinals.
In turn, these Italian players have nothing to do with that ’94 team—or with any of the other Italian teams that have beaten Spain in every official competition in which they’ve faced each other since the 1920 Olympics.
History shouldn’t matter, right?
And yet the stereotypes of Spanish and Italian soccer are known even to most casual American followers of the sport. Spain looks great in the group stage and loses its mojo once it hits the knockout rounds. Italy starts slowly, barely survives the group stage and turns into a world-beater when the games really matter.
Stereotyping by nationality, of course, should offend the intellectual sensibilities of everyone who does it. But then you see all the evidence in this case and start to wonder again.
Before the World Cup two years ago, I spoke with a Boston University professor and sports psychologist named Leonard Zaichkowsky, who had been hired by the Spanish national team to work with its players on positive thinking before and during World Cup ’06. He didn’t shy away from the notion (prevalent among Spanish fans) that La Furia Roja has a Boston Red Sox-style curse on it.
“We’ve tried to talk about that from day one,” Zaichkowsky told me. “My position is I had a lot of training in Boston with the whole business of curses and you can’t win the big one. It’s virtually identical to Spain. There’s a curse on us. Certainly they have highly skilled players. You’ve got to emphasize from the get-go that they’re a different group of highly talented individuals led by a good coach. You’re different.”
In the end, that Spanish team was no different after all. It breezed through the group stage only to be upset in the second round by France.
And so here we are again. Spain has bagged three straight wins in group play on the shoulders of David Villa, the leading scorer of Euro 2008. Italy has sputtered, losing its first game (to the Netherlands), barely scratching out a tie against Romania (thanks to a late penalty-kick save by Gigi Buffon) and beating France to somehow survive until today. Its top goal-scoring threat, Luca Toni, has not found the net yet.
Nor do the on-the-field circumstances favor the Azzurri. Their most creative midfielder, Andrea Pirlo, is out on yellow-card suspension, as is roving pitbull (and Dolce & Gabbana underwear pitchman) Gennaro Gattuso. Injured World Cup heroes Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi have been out as well, forcing Italy to put together a makeshift backline.
Italy’s most important player today may well be Pirlo stand-in Daniele De Rossi, whose claim to fame (at least in the U.S.) is that he maliciously broke the face of Brian McBride in the last World Cup.
Spain, meanwhile, has a lot going for it: rested players, the tournament’s most dangerous front line (Villa and Fernando Torres), a technically masterful midfield (led by Xavi and Andrés Iniesta), a scary bench (Cesc, Xabi Alonso, Dani Güiza) and one of the world’s best goalkeepers (Iker Casillas). The Spanish haven't lost in 19 games, and they have won nine in a row.
If Italy wins this quarterfinal, I’ll have to finally accept that history matters much more than I think it should in world soccer. But curses have to end at some point, right? Even the Red Sox won the World Series.
Deep breath: Spain 1, Italy 0.
Who do you like today? Please post your thoughts below and come back after the game for the next edition of the Euro 2008 Blog ...