LONDON — They are opponents who have long struck fear into the heart of Spanish soccer.
The Italians: tough, defensively strong, cynical. Winners by whatever means possible — or so it was widely perceived in Spain anyway.
And Luis Enrique knows all about it.
The current Spain coach was a member of the national team that was beaten by Italy 1-0 in the 1994 World Cup quarterfinals. As famous as the 88th-minute winning goal by Roberto Baggio was the elbow to Luis Enrique’s face administered by Italy’s hard man in defense, Mauro Tassotti.
The violent act went unpunished during the game — Tassotti would later get an eight-match ban — but wasn’t forgotten in Spain. The photo of an anguished Luis Enrique, blood pouring from his broken nose onto a splattered white towel, has gone down in history, and is often brought out whenever the two rivals meet.
Like they will at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday in the European Championship semifinals.
“We’ve spoken a few times since but that’s in the past, part of footballing history,” Luis Enrique said Monday about the incident with Tassotti. “Both of us, of course, would’ve preferred that had gone differently but there’s nothing more to say.”
Actually, Luis Enrique doesn’t appear to hold any grudges toward the Azzurri, his feelings possibly changing after spending a year coaching Italian club Roma in the 2011-12 season.
“It’s a country I’m very fond of,” he said. “Whenever I’ve a bit of free time, I always like to visit Italy. It’s lovely to come up against the Azzurri — it’s always very nice.”
Many in Spain would disagree.
For 88 years, Spain didn’t beat Italy in a competitive match and an inferiority complex naturally grew. A clash of styles — typically attacking Spain against defensive Italy — always went one way.
Until 2008, that is. That was when a weight was lifted from a nation as Spain defeated Italy in a penalty shootout in Vienna in the European Championship quarterfinals on its way to its first continental title in 44 years.
Four years later, Spain would beat Italy again at Euro 2012, this time 4-0 in Kyiv for the most lop-sided score in a final in the tournament’s history.
Yet Spain’s title defense was ended in the last 16 five years ago by a limited but tactically superior Italy coached by Antonio Conte, which won 2-0 in Paris.
The teams, then, will be meeting in a fourth straight tournament. This match promises to be different, though, purely because of the way Italy’s approach has altered since Roberto Mancini took over as coach in 2018.
Sure, the trademark Italian robustness in defense is still there, but the team has an attacking swagger these days and also has become more of a passing team. They’re not in Spain’s league in terms of possession, but then again who is?
“We’re leaders in the possession stats, but they too are a side who enjoy playing with the ball. So that’s going to be the first battle to win,” Luis Enrique said. “But they’re also very good without the ball. We need the ball. We want to have it.”
Spain has the squad with youngest average age in the tournament — at 24.1 years — and there’s a sense that Luis Enrique feels his players have exceeded expectations by reaching the semifinals.
It’s why he was so proud of getting past Switzerland in the quarterfinals, albeit with the need of a penalty shootout.
“It’s impossible to understate this,” he said. “We’re not an experienced national team.”
Indeed, when it comes to being streetwise at international level, few can top the Italians.
A clip of Italy striker Ciro Immobile falling dramatically in the area and apparently feigning injury during the win over Belgium in the quarterfinals, only for him to instantly spring to his feet moments later after Nicola Barella scored the opening goal, has been spread widely over social media.
Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci laughed it off on Monday, saying “the joy and excitement of a goal in matches such as these means you don’t experience any more pain.” But to some it was another classic example of gamesmanship.
It’s why players like Champions League winners Cesar Azpilicueta, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba will be so important for Spain to guide the team’s younger players at Wembley.
“We’re not an experienced team,” Luis Enrique said, “but it doesn’t mean we don’t have experience of the game. Many of our players have played at a very high level and are used to these games.
“I just hope we’re up to the challenge.”
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