The road toward triumph in a major soccer tournament must at some point take the form of an epic quest, and so the manner of Italy’s win over Spain was duly mythical. They defeated their Mediterranean rivals in a penalty shootout, prevailing by four successful kicks to two, and in doing so they showed an astonishing level of resilience. Against Belgium in the previous round, a match many of us thought featured the two best teams at Euro 2020, Italy were supreme for long periods; against Spain, they were thoroughly human. It is hard to imagine a midfield of Marco Verratti, Nicolò Barella, and Jorginho being consistently on the back foot against anyone, but this is what they experienced against Spain, assailed by the often majestic trio of Koke, the swiftly aging but still sublime Sergio Busquets, and, of course, the prodigy that is Pedri.
Pedri, Pedri. It is difficult to remember such a young and diminutive figure being so dominant in a fixture of this importance. Following this game, Spain coach Luis Enrique said that he had never seen anyone do what Pedri did, not even Andrés Iniesta. Pedri is a man of deceptive strength: He may be as slim as a candle, but you couldn’t extinguish his flame with a whirlwind. At the end of 90 minutes, the teams tied with one goal apiece, Sid Lowe—presumably as awestruck as the rest of us—tweeted that “Pedri has completed, erm, ALL of his passes.”
Yet Italy still found a way to prevail. They started this game with the same intensity with which they had shoved Belgium aside, before realizing that Spain were somewhat more resistant to their storm. It was poignant to see Italy create some of their best openings down the left, because, as well as Emerson played, those ventures forward would probably have been all the more efficient had they been led by Leonardo Spinazzola, the wingback who had been in exceptional form before an injury against Belgium ruled him out of the tournament.
After Spain endured Italy’s early onslaught, they then hatched a possibly lethal scheme of their own, and at the center of it was Busquets. Watching Busquets, even in his later years, is reminiscent of the opening lines of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds.” Wells, describing the Martians as they plotted their invasion of Earth, observed that:
“Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
Busquets, every bit as brilliant, calculating, and unsympathetic as a Martian covetously eyeing our Earth, began to prompt attack after attack. The most effective opponent of his scheming was Barella, whose excellent movement showed that he understood the golden rule of every midfield battle: you cannot, under any circumstances, allow Busquets to walk. If you let this man stroll about the center circle, he will destroy you. As regal as Busquets so often was in this game, Barella made sure to unsettle him whenever he could. After all, if you are a young upstart in the presence of an elderly king, it is your duty to keep knocking the crown from his head.
While Italy went for width as the main emphasis of their attack, Spain went for narrowness, concentrating their forces through the middle. That’s where Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal, starting in place of the much-maligned Álvaro Morata, sought to make their claims as national heroes. But glory evaded them. Both players missed significant opportunities in the first half, and in doing so they reminded us just how hard it is to score at this level—because you aren’t just aiming at the net, you are aiming at history. Their failures in that opening period foreshadowed the pain to come.
It was fitting that, in a match steeped in footballing pedigree, the person to open the scoring should come from some of the game’s finest lineage. The first goal came after an hour, a magnificent strike from Federico Chiesa, the Juventus forward whose father Enrico had played 22 times for Italy. Chiesa had already found the net in the knockout stages against Austria, breaking the deadlock in extra time. Here he did so after an exhilarating counterattack, Italy surging forward with the urgency of locusts before he steered the stray ball into the far corner of Unai Simón’s goal. At that point, Spain appeared to be doomed. Italy’s defense, led by the legendary Giorgio Chiellini, looked as distinguished and immovable as the walls of a medieval city; meanwhile, Spain seemed short of the energy and creativity for a successful siege. At which point, enter Morata.
Oh, Morata. Euro 2020 has been, shall we say, an extraordinary emotional journey for him. It may be some time before he processes it in full: He has given us a spectacular and decisive goal (against Croatia), a series of spectacular misses (against Slovakia, Sweden, and, yes, against Croatia), some superb forward play, but never a sense of reliability. During that run of games, his family was shamefully approached and intimidated by supporters of the national team who were furious at his poor form: eternal proof that even during a deadly pandemic there are still people on this earth who absolutely can be trusted not to retain a sense of perspective. Here, having been dropped to the bench to make room for Oyarzabal as an extra midfielder, Morata was introduced to be Spain’s savior. It was a role for which he seemed utterly ill-fitted; and yet, with 10 minutes to go, he played it to perfection. Rushing onto a beautifully precise pass from Olmo, he did what no player apart from Romelu Lukaku at Euro 2020 had done to Gianluigi Donnarumma: he calmly sent him the wrong way. Spain 1, Italy 1. Morata was redeemed, his nation was euphoric, and the game advanced to extra time—and then, perhaps inevitably, to penalties.
Never has a form of conflict resolution been both so brutal and yet so utterly just as the penalty shootout. Never have the football gods been so keen to identify someone to have a crucial penalty saved as Morata was here. The striker’s joy lasted all of 40 minutes, his effort swatted aside by Donnarumma as Italy swaggered into the final. While Morata’s journey ended in tragedy, Italy’s soared toward legend, their makeover underneath Roberto Mancini complete. They have conceded only two goals from open play all tournament. When Mancini took charge just over three years ago, in May 2018, they had failed to qualify for the World Cup a few months before, a humiliation they had not experienced in 60 years. Now they are back at the game’s high table, and they have now been so thoroughly battle-tested that they are well-placed to enjoy the banquet. We have seen them in all their guises so far at Euro 2020: showmen in the group stages, elite swordsmen against Belgium, and indomitable survivors against Spain. They can rightly feel confident they’ll be conquerors on Sunday.