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“The Neverending Story”, a famous fantasy novel from the 1980s, was the brainchild of German writer Michael Ende and one of its most famous film adaptions was directed by his fellow countryman Wolfgang Petersen. Perhaps, also due to their nationality, there’s no better title to introduce the Euro 2012 semi-final between Germany and Italy, a strong football rivalry from the Old World which can be compared to that between Argentina and Brazil in South America. True, England might be included as well, according to all those stereotypes which portray every clash with the Germans as a renewal of World War II. Still, no other football rivalry can recall such epic matches in the collective imagination more than the Italy-versus-Germany one.
Tonight in Warsaw the scenario will be the same as always. The Germans are the big favourites, depicted as a solid and pragmatic team to be feared,whilst the Italians are the physically inferior underdogs who magically overperform whenever they face Die Mannschaft. However, both sides have radically changed in recent years.
Germany have qualified for the semi-finals with a fantastic score, as they won all the matches they played. Moreover, they scored nine goals and conceded four and they literally outclassed Greece even without fielding regular strikers Mario Gomez, Thomas Müller and Lukas Podolski. Their victories are the fruit of a new footballing approach, far away from the memories of centre-forward Gerd Müller waiting for a ball to come in the box or of top-class players who, however, lacked creativity. In brief, this is a result of a phenomenon which involves several countries, but which Germany managed to take advantage of – immigration and multiethnicity.
Popular British magazine FourFourTwo maintained they are now a decent national team because, quintessentially, there are no German players. This statement may withhold the renowned hatred between the two countries, still it turned out to be true. Germany probably offered the most entertaining football in the World Cup in South Africa, where they smashed England – it is true that Frank Lampard’s shot crossed the line, but it is also true that the second half was a one-way match – and Argentina, before losing 1-0 to Spain just on a set piece in the final minutes. It was all courtesy to players born in Poland, like Miroslav Klose and Podolski, or originated from Ghana (Jérôme Boateng), Spain (Mario Gómez – pictured right), Tunisia (Sami Khedira) and Turkey (Mesut Özil). Meanwhile, young talents such as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defenders Holger Badstuber and Bats Hummels and striker Mario Götze have blossomed.
It seems to read the story of Italy in the 1990s. The Azzurri boasted admirable Under-21 national teams who indeed won all but one European Championship from 1992 to 2000, fielding future stars such as Fabio Cannavaro, Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Nesta, Francesco Totti and, above all, current national team players Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo (pictured left). They all formed the backbone of the national team who won the World Cup in 2006, in which they overcame Germany in a tense semi-final with Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero scoring in the last minute of the extra-time.
The Italians were accompanied with critics following the massive Calciopoli match-fixing scandal and six years later their reputation has not changed to the eyes of upright Germans, certainly because of the Scommessopoli scandal. Furthermore, the situation has become more tense due to the economic instability of the European Union, where one of the countries is a leading economy and the other is listed among the weakest ones. It’s quite easy to imagine classic banters between “lazy, stylish latin lovers” from Italy, the land of “spaghetti and mandolini”, and the “hardworkers” from Germany “who eat sauerkrauts, drink beer and wear sandals with socks”.
Leaving these stereotypes apart, this semi-final might turn to be another fascinating one, like the legendary 4-3 in Mexico City in 1970, the final match in 1982 with the famous goal celebration by Marco Tardelli or the aforementioned Italian triumph in Dortmund, where Germany had never lost before, in 2006. Joachim Löw can rely upon a promising goalkeeper, a stable defence and a creative midfield supporting a lone striker who swaps his position with deep-lying forwards but at the same time he is in the right place when it comes to finish an offensive manoeuvre.
On the other side, Cesare Prandelli shows a typical Italian national team, who has netted the ball four times so far – only one on open action – with as many different scorers in as many matches. They showed a remarkable team spirit, though, and no opponent has managed to block magician Andrea Pirlo. Indeed, they performed better as they shifted from the initial 3-5-2 formation, with Daniele De Rossi fielded as centre-back, to the classic 4-4-2 with the diamond midfield. Still, the Azzurri are not considered the favourites and the scenario cannot be compared with the one of 2006 – Germany have improved in creativity and fluidity, Italy perhaps lacks experienced players. Not secondarily, the latter had less time available to recover from the quarter-finals, they won against England after a very exhausting match and Löw made some of his key elements have a break.
But this is the umpteenth Italy-Germany. Once more, logics might not apply to such a match.