WARSAW, POLAND – Italy will take on Spain Sunday night in Kyiv with Europe's biggest prize on the line: the European Championship .
The final is an unlikely one. Before the tournament, many had guessed the defending champs would face off against Germany . Instead, thanks to Mario Balotelli and an ageless performance from Andrea Pirlo , Germany are packing and Italy is dreaming.
But, again, it is unlikely. In fact, a cynic might say that on the evidence, what Italy needs to prosper at the highest level is nothing short of a scandal.
-In 1982, Italy headed to the Spanish World Cup with their best forward, Paolo Rossi, coming off a match-fixing suspension. Goalkeeper Dino Zoff was still between the pipes and wasn't well thought of. Zoff had been ripped for perceived "mistakes" during Italy's disastrous 1978 World Cup campaign in Argentina and was considered past his prime.
Italy had been written off by its faithful before the '82 World Cup began - and it was exactly what the Azzurri needed. Freed of the suffocating pressure, and sparked by a Marco Tardelli goal which still stands as one of the most memorable strikes in a World Cup final, the Italians celebrated a World Cup title at the expense of favored West Germany.
-In 2006, it was "Calciopoli," with Juventus being demoted to Serie B and stripped of two titles for, again, fixing games. Marco Materazzi infamously provoked France's Zinedine Zidane into an unforgivable head butt, David Trezeguet hit a penalty kick off the crossbar in the tie-breaker, and Italy won the World Cup in Berlin.
-Now we come to the present day. Italy have - guess what! - another match-fixing scandal. They were forced to leave Domenico Criscito home because of his implication in the matter and their current captain, Gianluigi Buffon, has faced some tough questions. Again, the pressure was off; this was a team derided as too old, too slow, and incapable of change.
And yet, here we are again. Italy are on the cusp of winning only their second European title ever Sunday night in Kyiv, and have shocked everyone. Even for the historically slow-starting Azzurri, the manner in which they rose from the ashes to qualify on the final day of the group stage, outlasted a rearguard England, and then swept aside the consensus best team in the tournament last night in Warsaw is truly impressive.
The key to their resurgence has been a mix between the old and the new: Andrea Pirlo is making a case as the player of the entire tournament; Mario Balotelli is channeling his recklessness into some audacious goals. There are 12 years separating the two men, and they represent the polar opposites of the Italian game.
Pirlo is the sober playmaker, delivering the ball wide and long, controlling the tempo of the games here with something close symphonic mastery. Against England, he was impossible to contain. Against Germany, he was simply irrepressible, saving a goal at one end, creating them at the other. A watchmaker couldn't fashion more precision and the fact that Pirlo is 33 - yet seems sleeker and faster than many of his opponents - is nothing short of miraculous.
Balotelli, on the other hand, plays like a man who simply doesn't give a damn. He is the new face of Italian soccer, playing with a liberty that borders on the reckless and with that freedom, is capable of scoring some startling goals. He has the reputation as a hothead, but he is a far more complex character than that. Among all the players, he genuinely seems absurdly talented yet down to earth, both caring and jovial - and at times, startlingly immature.
Italy will face a Spain that is probably the most technically gifted team in the tournament. They are tactically astute but rather insipid to watch: lacking a pure striker, they have resorted to a complex game of keep-away that thrills the nerdish but dulls the rest of us. They also look threatened when teams run at them, something this new Italy is capable of doing with aplomb. Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Cassano have improved steadily with each game and now look to be the threats Cesare Prandelli intended them to be.
What Italy will have to do is exactly what they did against Germany: take the ball away, play a fast but balanced game and press at all times. Portugal showed that Spain are vulnerable on the flanks, and several teams have shown that Spain doesn't like to have a body on them.
If this sounds simple, that's because it is - Rick Pitino has been running it for years in college hoops - but in practice it requires precision and stamina. How much Italy has left in the tank after seeing off the Germans is of course open to question.
And yet, there is reason for optimism for the Azzurri. They have already dispatched the best team in the tournament. Now, all they have to do is dispatch the most cagey.