Narrating the rivalry between Italy and Germany is a bit like sitting a child on your lap and trying to explain what happened between Ludwig Van Beethoven and Gioacchino Rossini in the first decades of the 19th Century. You want to do justice to such giants, but at the same time you do not want to spoil the beauty. Of course you can’t be too wordy, yet you cannot help asking yourself how to tell such a story in ‘parole povere,’ the Italian idiom for conciseness (literally translated as ‘poverty of words’).
Since words are always so difficult, one can take refuge in numbers. Italy and Germany are the two most successful football nations in Europe and are only rivalled by Brazil and Argentina in the world. They count seven World Cup trophies amid the two of them and a total of twelve finals out of nineteen of the above tournaments – as many as all the other European nations combined. They have played against each other five times in the World Cup, and most of these matches have passed into the history of the tournament. More so than any other, perhaps, the Jahrhundertspiel, or ‘game of the century,’ a 1970 semi-final between Italy and Germany that ended 4-3 and was so dramatic that the Stadio Azteca in Mexico commemorated it with a plate at the entrance. It stands there still.
Italy – Germany is the stuff of legend. It is a rivalry whose matches effortlessly define entire generations of football fans. It is the Iliad of Italian football as much as Italy-Brazil is its Odyssey. And the reason their encounters are always so epic is that the football cultures of these two nations exist in a state of perfect (and perfectly balanced) antagonism. Sketching the nature of this antagonism will be the object of this article.
The German national team could be seen as a football equivalent of Beethoven’s music. It is fundamentally based on power, elevated to the most rarefied heights but at the same time –and most remarkably – marshalled in a rigorous form. It depends on neither the choreographic dancing that South Americans are so fond of, nor on the delicate technical gestures that define the Italians, nor even on the elegant geometries drawn by the Dutch teams. It is not even similar to English football, which is also strongly centred on power, because the power of the Germans is one that transcends physicality.
There is nothing brutish about German power. Their major cultural achievement is to have specialised in a type of football (though arguably indebted to the Hungarian Golden Team of the fifties) in which the product is always greater than the sum of the individuals. No more can the labels of Classicism and Romanticism contain Beethoven’s titanic musical breadth than a sheet of paper could describe the quality of the German team. Anyone who tries to understand a German team simply by examining the technical attributes of its players is destined to find himself or herself darkened and dumb and at the shore of a void, because it is in their ability to transcend said attributes as a team that the players truly become German.
Italians, on the other hand, are as remote from the notion of power as any team can get. When they play beautifully, they do so with lightness of a Rossini aria. There is nothing forceful, nothing difficult in the Italian game – in fact, if there is one aesthetic quality that captures Italian ‘fantasia’ (imagination), it is their ability to make even the most complex technical gestures appear easy and enjoyable. The virtuosity of Rossini is masked by his ingenuity.
When the two teams meet each other, the game is profoundly European. Perhaps nothing else makes it so special. Past matches between Italy and Brazil can frequently be read as the world’s best defence against the world’s best offence. When it involves the Germans, there is nothing tactical about the game. As in a Shakespearean tragic monologue, everything is internalised, everything takes place below the surface. To the uninitiated, the game simply seems like two furiously passionate teams coming at each other and never surrendering. To those who have seen this before, the duel takes place between Italian guile and German endurance.
It is a characteristic of the Italians to fight with subtlety, using spaces and resources that usually remain unperceived. Tactical fouls, time-wasting, whispering in your ear, taking free kicks when no-one is expecting them, all the tricks that a Spaniard would see as ‘dirty play,’ and which are nonetheless potent enough to break such a player as Zinedine Zidane, are and will be used by the Italians. They may seem defensive on the pitch, but at the psychological level, Italians are ruthlessly aggressive.