WARSAW, Poland (AP) – A provocative graphic appeared in Bild , the German tabloid, on Thursday morning. It's familiar to anyone who has been asked by an airline after booking their ticket to choose where they want to sit on a plane. An overhead perspective shows the Italy team sitting in formation. The implication was simple: They were on the flight home.
Excuse Italy then if the overriding feeling in its camp right now is schadenfreude , pleasure in the misfortune of others; in this case, Germany . Bild was right to an extent. The Italians will be catching a plane in the next day or two. Only their destination will not be Rome, but Kiev, Ukraine, where the final of Euro 2012 will take place on Sunday.
There's a temptation to say that Italy's 2-1 victory Thursday was written in the stars. Much was made of how it had never lost to Germany in a major tournament. But in the buildup to the match, former Italy international Rino Gattuso told Il Corriere della Sera newspaper: "Destiny is not enough." Italy would need something more if this current team was to emulate their forebears and vanquish Germany as in 1970, 1982 and 2006.
It was to come from Mario Balotelli , and quite sensationally too. Antonio Cassano turned Sami Khedira and delivered one of the best crosses of the tournament. Catching Holger Badstuber flat-footed, Balotelli rose to meet it and powered a header past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. The Germans were behind for the first time in the European Championship. How would they react?
Before they could, Balotelli struck again, becoming Italy's all-time joint top scorer in European Championship history and only the second Italian player to score a brace in this competition, after Pierluigi Casiraghi against Russia at Euro `96.
This was to be his night, perhaps the greatest of Super Mario's career. Springing the offside trap, he raced clear of Philipp Lahm to chase after a wonderful pass from Riccardo Montolivo and then smash it into the top corner from outside the box. Ripping off his shirt, Balotelli stood still, tensing his muscles. If anyone was ever in doubt, he certainly is "more of a man than Peter Pan."
And yet Italy is now in Neverland. For all the auspiciousness of entering a tournament under the shadow of a scandal like in 1982 and 2006, few genuinely expected the Italians to reach the final. That they have is of great credit to coach Cesare Prandelli.
"I believe this isn't our best national team in the last 10 years, but it is the best led," wrote Il Corriere della Sera . While Marcello Lippi might have something to say about that, few would disagree.
This is a team that has made its country proud again. Why? Because Italians feel like they are included and truly represented by it. Prandelli has listened to the people. "The new generation wants to see this kind of football and not think about the result from the first minute," he said.
So Italy has broken with the past. It no longer cowers behind defensive barricades then breaks out and scores a goal against the run of play. The Italians instead choose to fight hand-to-hand and go toe-to-toe with their opponents. They take the game to them. It doesn't matter who their adversaries were or what reputation they hold, the Italians try to beat them at their own game and on their own terms.
Recall for instance how they didn't bend to Spain 's will, compromise or adapt their style of football in their opening match. There was no fielding two right backs, à la France; just courage.
"We cannot turn back on how we play, wiping out two years of work," Prandelli insisted. "We may risk something, but we will be us."
And how it has paid off. Thursday's front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport carried the headline: "Without fear." Italy has played like that throughout Euro 2012, on the front foot, taking the initiative. Opinions of its football have changed for the better. Johan Cruyff's saying that, "Italians can't beat you, but you can lose to them," no longer rings true. Prandelli's Italy not only wins, it convinces too -- and that's to be admired.
In a heavyweight context between two of the most successful nations in Europe's football history boasting seven World Cups and four European Championships combined, Italy didn't play rope-a-dope Thursday; it floated like a butterfly and stung Germany like a bee.
" Orgoglio d'Italia ," proclaimed La Gazzetta dello Sport after the 2-1 triumph. "Pride of Italy." Now Spain awaits in Sunday's final, and confidence is high. No one has come closer to defeating the holders than Italy did in its group-stage encounter, and immense heart can be taken from that 1-1 draw. Can the Italians lift the European Championship trophy for the first time since 1968?
"When you dream, you have to dream big," Prandelli told reporters after the game. "We want to win."