Italy v Spain: a blood-stained rivalry that may be about to spill over again

Spain Training - EURO 2016

The blood poured from Luis Enrique’s nose, a red stain reaching across the white towel pressed against his face.

In Foxborough, Massachusetts, Spain had just been knocked out of the World Cup by Italy, thanks to Roberto Baggio’s 88th-minute goal and referee Sándor Puhl not seeing Mauro Tassotti elbowing the Real Madrid forward in the penalty area. Not seeing or not wanting to see, according to Javier Clemente, Spain’s manager that day in July 1994.

“The referee made a mistake,” he says, “well, not a mistake, exactly. He didn’t want to give that penalty. He saw it. He was close enough. He could see the blood everywhere. But it was an uncomfortable decision to give. It was Italy: they were powerful, they filled stadiums. Apart from the US, no one packed grounds like them. There were a lot of Italian immigrants in the US, 50,000 Italians there that day. He was scared. That was a ‘home’ game, and refs aren’t so brave against home teams.”

When the video was analysed, Tassotti received an eight-game ban but it was too late. Clemente says that there was a belief that they could reach the World Cup final that year; instead they were out at the quarter-final stage. It was Italy who faced Brazil in the Rose Bowl eight days later, by which time Spain had gone. The image, though, remained. The day they met at Euro 2008, Marca opened on it alongside the headline: “Italy, this hasn’t been forgotten”.

The image was everywhere, one columnist remarking before the quarter-final in Vienna: “I go to fill the car with petrol and there’s Luis Enrique spilling blood behind the pump; I take a piss and there’s Luis Enrique in the cubicle, doubled over, cleaning blood off his disfigured face; I climb into bed and there’s someone next to my wife. It’s Mauro Tassotti.”

If there was a portrait of this footballing rivalry, it was that – from a Spanish perspective, at least. Italian football was “the most unsporting in the world,” one paper said. It was everything Spanish football was not, seen as defensive, dirty, cynical, boring … and successful.

Twenty years later, that has changed; but how lasting the change is has been tested these last few days. “You get over it with time,” Clemente says. In Austria, Spain did. “Italy are always the same: they scrape through and then win the tournament,” Álvaro Arbeloa said, and “fear” was the word that morning, but it was Spain who scraped through on penalties after a 0-0 draw, the first time they had knocked out Italy. Not just a victory, it was a catharsis. They had changed their destiny. Fernando Torres called it “the moment we won the Euros”, Spain’s first in 44 years.

Four years later, having also become world champions, they won a second. Their opponents in the final were Italy. The year after, Spain again beat them, going through on penalties in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup.

Spain had the chance to knock Italy out of Euro 2012 at the group stages if they drew 2-2 with Croatia, prompting Marca to run the same picture of a bloodied Enrique but this time the headline had changed. “Don’t worry, Italy, we don’t hold a grudge,” it read. They could afford to now and there was a message there too, a moral tone to it that said: we’re above you now, in every sense.

In the final at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Spain defeated Italy 4-0. For la selección, there was a pleasing symmetry to it all, the most successful era in international football history opening and closing with their rivals. In what is sometimes presented as an ideological battle, it was also seen as the triumph of a style.

In Paris, they meet again. Italy have not won since. “I watched the 2012 final on television and it is one of the worst moments I remember. I hope we can take revenge,” Matteo Darmian said.

“We created them in 2008 and now we have to eliminate them: even sagas end eventually,” Corriere della Sera wrote when Croatia’s late winner in Bordeaux brought them together. Yet Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline ran: “Mamma, Spain!” Spain did not want Italy, but nor did Italy want Spain.

“Things have changed,” Clemente says. “Back then you would get Italy and think: ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got the toughest nut’. Now it’s the other way round; it’s hard but it’s not the same. Spain are the team to beat.”

Italy’s manager, Antonio Conte, admitted: “Spain are big favourites.” Assuming “admitted” is even the word; assuming this was not a deliberate declaration designed to prepare the ground. If so, the Spanish are not falling for it. Conte has talked about the limitations of Italian football and lamented the lack of talent being developed; lamented, too, that winning the group has not served to avoid a run that could read: Spain, Germany, France. “Strange,” he called it.

For the Italy midfielder Thiago Motta, these are national teams at different stages and Spain have the advantage of continuity. “A big part of that squad is made up of players who have been playing a particular way for a long time; the opposite is true of Italy; we have lost what we had ten years ago,” he says. “Ten years ago other teams were worried when they played us, but not any more. Our motivation comes from competing again, showing we can return to doing that.”

And yet Spain were the first team to depart Brazil two years ago and Tassotti – yes, that one – says: “Spanish football has grown a lot since 94 but they’re living the end of an era now; they’re no longer so brilliant.” Dino Zoff agreed: “This is not the same Spain that crushed us.” There are doubts now after the loss to Croatia, and its consequences. Consequence No1: Italy.

Italy are trying to rebuild: this was a tournament they came to with no great expectations and one of the most limited squads in memory. But under Conte there is a sense of rediscovery, a hint of that old Italian mentality that Arrigo Sacchi believes is born from a medieval idea of survival through fortification. Defence, in other words. “Talent versus catenaccio,” ran the headline in El Mundo.

“I think that’s a label people hang on teams; they are as attacking as anyone else here,” Vicente del Bosque says, but there may be something in it. No one has run more, nor conceded fewer shots. “I have called up 23 players who, more than footballers, are real men,” Conte said.

Spain did not want this draw, still less with Germany and France likely to follow if they get through. The former playmaker Xavi Hernández, analysing their play and personality, focusing on the 3-5-2 formation Conte has adopted, told Gazzetta dello Sport that Italy were the “worst” opponent Spain could have got. “I don’t like this at all; they have an incredible defence.” He called Italy a “rock”.

“We’re not worse than Italy,” Del Bosque said, his words sounding like something he had to say, a necessary message of optimism amid the gloom. The respect, the concern, is striking – born, perhaps, of that sense that there is something about Italy that they have seen before. Clemente says he is optimistic but warns: “Italian football has always been dominated by defensive solidity, a toughness. History shows that. Until they’re carried off the pitch dead, they’re not beaten.”

Before the Croatia game, when meeting the Azzurri appeared impossible, Gerard Piqué was asked who he thought were the favourites for Euro 2016. He named three teams; as it later turned out, they’re the three that Spain may well have to face now. And the first of them were Monday’s opponents, familiar rivals. “Italy are very Italy,” he said. “And that worries me.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sid Lowe, for The Observer on Sunday 26th June 2016 10.00 Europe/London

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