Of the five European World Cup winning nations, all of whom are competing in Euro 2016, Italy left the most lasting impression during the first round of matches.
Their headline-grabbing 2-0 victory over potential pre-tournament favourites Belgium matched fellow star-wearers Germany.
The manner of their victory was also similar to that of their Teutonic near-neighbour, scoring a first-half goal and then only sealing victory in the closing minutes when their opponents flailed up-field in a desperate search for an equaliser.
Both games had English referees in charge of their matches and the ridiculous decision of Martin Atkinson to award the Germans their free kick from which they scored coupled with Mark Clattenburg’s following of the letter, but not the spirit of the law in keeping all eleven Italians on the pitch brings me to the point.
For ninety-odd minutes, I thought it was 1982.
The rule that saw a player forced to vacate the playing surface after receiving treatment has to a point done what it was supposed to do. It is still a mystery as to why a player should have to go off if the referee has actually awarded a free kick therefore deeming the cause of the injury to be foul play. The idea was to stamp out the histrionics and theatrics primarily enforced by the above two nations over donkeys’ years.
Sneeze near an Italian or German on a football pitch thirty to forty years ago and he would drop like he has been hit by one of Ali’s best. Remember Gazza’s tackle in the 1990 World Cup final?
To this day, many people remain convinced he never actually made contact with his opponent. Yet the fall and roll, supported by the German bench as one jumping up to demand a life sentence, resulted in a yellow card, the prospect of missing the final itself and the famous tears. If that yellow had not happened, who knows………….?
Anyway, to return to the point, those days in the main are now resigned to the history books, or perhaps we should say in this modern digital era, YouTube. The other rule that was brought in was the straight red for a professional foul. Had the detail around that particular nugget been a little less stringent, Italy could have found themselves playing with single figures come the ninetieth minute.
It was that side of Italy that was seen against Belgium. The professional, possible cynical game that once again was employed by both Germany and Italy for years reared its head.
At least one tackle worthy of the Challenge Cup Final was witnessed whilst the trip was replaced by the good old fashioned, straightforward scything down. This particular viewer went from outrage to hysterics in about fifteen minutes. Was this a rerun of a 1980’s match? Like Wimbledon or the test match, had rain stopped play and forced ancient replays to be shown instead?
But there was no large letter ‘R’ in the corner; no pop up banner indicating when a pitch inspection was anticipated. This was Euro 2016.
Make no mistake; the Italians played very well. The performance ranked in the top five if not the top three seen so far. But, like the Germans before them, they did not look like World, or given it is Euro 2016, Europe beaters.
Like the Germans, Italy’s goal lived, on occasions, a charmed life whether it be through good defending or poor finishing. Like the Germans, the second and decisive goal only came very late on when their opponents were chasing the game.
Like the Germans, Italy also relied heavily on the application of the law by the referee. It was not Clattenburg’s fault that he could only issue a yellow for a tackle more usually seen at Twickenham.
But nothing that has been seen yet, including Spain, including France, including England, has offered the slightest insight into who will be lifting the trophy on July 10.
What has been seen is a mixture of great goals, bad tackles, poor misses, cursed luck and the odd refereeing howler. In essence, everything that a fan could possibly expect to see in a game of football.
The fact that a bit of historic stereotyping has risen its head only adds to the appeal of watching the rest of the tournament.