Date:27th June 2012 at 4:00pm
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The Germans correspond to this system because they are, psychologically speaking, as firm as the rock of Gibraltar. A German team losing is something that happens, but a German team surrendering is unheard of by this writer. As much as the Italians play by throwing everything – absolutely everything – they have got at you, the Germans play by resisting everything, truly everything that can be thrown at them. The two teams confront each other but also understand each other.

Perhaps this is the reason why, underlying their rivalry, runs a deep and mutual sense of respect. Unlike the antagonism between the German and the Dutch or that between the Italians and the French, there is no element of hostility at all between these two great nations. No matter how muddy it gets on the field, Italy – Germany will always be the cleanest game in football. It will also, of course, be grand, and yet in spite of its enduring greatness it will never be aptly explained, no more than a symphony or an Opera will ever be rendered by words.

Italy – Germany is a great classic because there is nothing rational about it. You cannot understand it by means of tactics or by comparing individual players. It is the answer to why football is beautiful even when it makes no sense. Italy won all three of the great World Cup knock-out games by coming in as underdogs. Only in 2006 were they considered to bring the better squad, but then Germany were playing at home, so the onus was still on the Italians to prove something (the other two games are, of course, those of 1970 and 1982).

The background behind these matches therefore bodes well for the one tomorrow, which sees the Germans walking in as clear favourites. Their squad has been as consistent as that of the Azzurri has been erratic, and their line-up reads like a pantheon of stars. Most importantly, they have had an extra two days of rest, while the Italians went into extra-time against the English. Keeping in mind that part of the German squad was benched for the match against Greece, it really does seem like Italy will need yet another miracle to reach the final.

But then, Italians have a talent for spoiling parties, and the Germans know this better than anyone else. Being the favourites, or even the stronger team, has nothing to do with it. No-one would contest that Beethoven was a vastly superior musical personality than Rossini. And yet the last period of his life saw the German sinking into solitude and despair, his popularity in Vienna fading like a season, his deafness and isolation now absolute. In the decade in which Beethoven stopped writing symphonies (1814 to 1824), Rossini reached dizzying heights of success that even the composer of the Missa Solemnis had never experienced. Vienna had become a city owned by Rossini, at a time when Rossini did not even live in Vienna.

Of course, Beethoven eventually responded by writing the ninth symphony, and we all know how that went, while Rossini withdrew from the musical scene and spent his old age writing private, intimate music performed only for his closest friends. This is where the analogy with the football cultures reaches its end, as there has been no such conclusion for the Germans and the Italians.

The Germans are still looking for their ninth symphony by which to respond to the Italian victory in 1970, and the Italians are pathologically incapable of withdrawing from the public scene (perhaps Giuseppe Verdi serves a better model in this case than Rossini). Italy and Germany are bound by a thread and cannot be unbound because that thread is the matter of history itself. They cannot move without each other.

In the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘everything which touches us, you and me, takes us together like a single bow,  drawing out from two strings but one voice.’ Understanding the rivalry between these two gorgeously interdependent nations of football is an ongoing process which does not end with any of the games that are played, and it certainly does not end with this article.

For more Italy national team features throughout Euro 2012, check out our dedicated Azzurri section here.

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