In a game of layers and fronts and deep defensive lines, it always seemed likely the ending would boil down to a decisive moment for the men at the very back.
For long periods in Bordeaux, on a slow-burn, interminably gripping night, Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon simply stood and waited, or strolled and waited as in front of them Germany and Italy watched each other’s movements like a pair of well-matched heavyweight boxers bedding in for the full 15 rounds.
In the first half an eerie silence descended at times, the shouts of the players audible even from high up in the bleachers. Steadily, Germany tracked across the entire width of their five-man midfield, stretching the game but not really stretching Italy. As the wary 10-man scrummaging continued, you half expected to look down and notice the two managers, one in formal black, the other in groovy weekend-dad black , locked in a two-man MMA grapple of their own on the edge of the technical area. Still the goalkeepers watched and waited.
Even in the days leading up to this quarter-final it always felt like a match destined to dwindle away to the ultimate tournament endgame, that final decimal place. One thing this Euros had missed was a real sudden-death game of the goalkeepers, a duel de gants. There have been some outstanding one-off displays. But a genuine dead-eyed contest, a game of fine, isolated details – not 10 saves, but just the one very, very good one – is how championships often end up being decided.
And so we got there in the end. What a penalty shootout it was too, a moment of dramatic grace for Neuer, who saved twice, and seemed to ward off and wave away two more. And a moment of very public pain for Buffon who also saved in the shootout, who saved brilliantly in 90 minutes, but who left the pitch in floods of tears after Germany’s 6-5 shootout win. Buffon has said he wants to play on. It is to be hoped he gets the chance. This is no way to go out for a wonderful footballer and a hugely absorbing, presence.
Buffon seemed to know something in the build-up. He even had time for some gentle pre-shootout mind games, more a mind warm-up. “I said Neuer is better than me, because in the end it may be true,” Buffon mused, po-faced, before adding the killer line. “It would be offensive to compare him to a 38-year-old goalkeeper.” Very good Gianluigi. Over to you, Manuel, you great strapping beast. Above all, another very good way to kill the time.
Before kick-off there was another little moment between the two keeper-captains, a lingering gloved power-handshake, all nuanced fraternal goodwill.
As the last few spots of sun on the pitch shrunk away on a light, slightly breezy night in the industrial fringes of town, the Stade de Bordeaux was not so much a cauldron of hate as a cauldron of eager, ruminative, long-haul tension, the feeling of something epic in train.
Neither keeper made a save in the opening half hour. It was, for all the lack of wild intent, an absorbing, suffocating spectacle, even if there was almost an air of knowing satire about the occasional furious arm-whirling bursts of activity from both managers, like a round of sarcastic applause as the players plodded from side to side. Still the keepers waited and watched.
Finally, on 65 minutes the game’s first meaningful shot arrived and brought with it the opening goal. Buffon never had a chance. Jonas Hector played the perfect pass across the goal to Mesut Özil, who did not so much bury it as bobble it home, an afterthought of a finish. Moments later Buffon was in action properly for the first time, saving spectacularly from Giorgio Chiellini’s deflection. Saving the game or simply clutching at air as it flew past? The details are often unfair on goalkeepers, their fates decided by the action of others.
Here Leonardo Bonucci’s equaliser from the penalty spot briefly made it a heroic, redemptive save, as the game become a little more open. Italy pushed Germany back. Toni Kroos was stifled. German TV has come up with a new analytical scale to calibrate his worth: “packing” measures the number of players taken out of the game by a forward pass . Kroos’s packing stats, they say, are off the charts. Here though his packing was staunched as Italy ran 152km combined in the course of 120 minutes, pretty much the distance from Bordeaux to the Spanish border.
Extra tine passed in a daze. As the minutes ticked down Neuer took to standing miles out of his goal, just handing around out there in the centre circle spreading his vibes around. Buffon made a second save, warming his gloves a little, patting the ball down, eyeing it with real interest now. Well, well. You again. This.
Then it was time. Waiting on his line Neuer jogged and bounced, performing his rhythmic gymnastic psych-out. Thomas Müller produced a terrible kick that Buffon dropped on almost contemptuously. Player after player missed altogether. Finally Neuer went the right way and pulled off superb one handed stop to palm away Bonucci’s kick, then made the telling save from Matteo Darmian.
And that was that. It was an ending that had lurked all week, a moment to be seized or lost in the usual frenzy of luck, guesswork, skill and pure, unblinking exposure to that unwavering light.
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