For a minute or two, I thought Italy had a chance in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final. But then Spain got rolling, picked apart the pressing Italians, and rolled to a dominating 4-0 win that gives them a legitimate claim to be the best soccer team ever and in the conversation for best sports team ever.1 Those moments of hope were delicious for us fans of the Azzurri though.

Their destruction of Germany in Thursday’s semifinal was especially sweet. Mario Balotelli scored two of the most beautiful goals you will ever see and the Italians systematically ripped apart the vaunted German team. The margin could have easily been 4-0 or 5-0 before Germany took one back on a penalty kick in injury time. As it was, those two goals were enough to send Italy though to the final.

This Italian team was like no Italian national team in recent memory. Long the masters of scoring a goal then sucking the life out of the game in order to preserve the lead, this year’s edition pressed forward constantly. The back four weren’t as stout as some of the epic backlines of the past, but they were good enough to choke off most attacks. Andrea Pirlo was simply amazing controlling the middle of the field. It always seemed to be the Italians who were pushing forward, setting the pace, and keeping the defense on their heels. Even when Balotelli put the <em>Azzurri</em> ahead on his header Thursday, they continued to push forward. After his second goal, they still pushed. Sunday, rather than sit back and stifle the dangerous Spaniards, they pushed. For once it was an Itlian team that matched the image of Italy: sleek and stylish and fast.

There’s no shame in losing to Spain, even 4-0. For a few days, this Italian team gave its tifosi hope that they might pull off another miracle like their 2006 World Cup victory.

A couple other things about Euro 2012. As I wrote during the last World Cup, I love how Europe is becoming more like America, at least in racial terms. Germany started players born in Poland and Ghana, another of Spanish descent, and another of Turkish descent. Germany! A certain long-deceased former German leader is spinning in his grave right now. Mario Balotelli, despite his uber-Italian name, is a dark-skinned man of African lineage. The Czech Republic started a player born in Ethiopia. Once it was just the French and Dutch who featured players that were darker that the sterotypical European. England has embraced its black players in recent years. Finally others are getting on board. European soccer is, sadly, plagued by racism that seems shockingly out of place in 2012. Perhaps the integration of so many national teams will end that as a generation of kids grows up playing with and cheering for countrymen with different pigmentations.

Another way European soccer has become mre American is in the crowds. The age of drunken, working class, often racist mobs following their national teams around the continent and creating mayhem appears to be over. Not because those fans are gone or have been banned from traveling, but because actually attending the games has clearly become too expensive an option for the hooligans. Shots of the stands showed beautiful, rich people cheering on their teams while smiling at their opponents. That violence in the stands has been erradicated, at least at the highest levels, is a good thing. But that it’s a product of it being so bloody expensive to get into a game is a shame, just as it’s a shame working class families in the US have a hard time going to sporting events here.

I loved how The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” was the official post-goal song of the tournament. I wonder how much Jack and Meg got each time a goal was scored. I really enjoyed it when the English fan with the trumpet would play it over-and-over throughout the game.

Now the countdown for Brazil 2014 begins. Can the hosts win? Will the US make it out of group play? Can Spain continue their epic streak? Just how will England disappoint this time? Will Holland and France put their internal disfunction aside and play up to their abilities? I’m sure most of you can’t wait for my World Cup 2014 posts!

  1. These conversations are silly, because how can you really compare the best run by the Yankees to the Packers or Celtics of the 1960s, the 1970s Steelers or 1980s 49ers or 1990s Bulls, let alone throw in a national team that has won three competitions over a four-year period?