Sunday 24 June 1990 was a unique day in World Cup history. Diego Maradona vaccinated Brazil; Frank Rijkaard treated Rudi Voller to a flob-and-go; Jurgen Klinsmann did the work of two men. The matches that day were Brazil v Argentina and West Germany v the Netherlands, two of the mightiest contests in world football. Yet they were played not in the semis but the last 16, due to Argentina and the Netherlands finishing third in their groups. The games were almost too momentous to function.
This is what happens when superpowers meet before the quarter-final of a major tournament, because the last eight is par and elimination before that is as unthinkable as killing off your lead character in the second act. For those teams who are killed off, the misery of metaphorical death is infinitely greater when it’s inflicted by hated rivals, as it was for Brazil and the Netherlands in 1990.
Italy and Spain don’t have a rivalry to compare with those mentioned above, but their relationship has been on the feisty side ever since Mauro Tassotti turned USA 94 into a Tarantino set. We can’t promise that there will be blood, but we can promise that the losers won’t go quietly.
They will enter quietly, and with a degree of caution – Italy because Spain tonked them 4-0 in the final of this competition four years ago; Spain because Italy are Italy again. Spain have the better players, most notably Andres Iniesta, the first man to perfect football, but Italy’s teamwork is impressive and their back three and goalkeeper have been keeping clean sheets together for club and country since 1928.
Italy must feel pretty aggrieved about all this. Their reward for winning the toughest group in the competition is a match against Spain, with Germany and Iceland or France waiting after that. The team they beat, Belgium, get Hungary, Wales and Portugal or Poland. That, right there, is some dumb luck.
Kick off is at 5pm in England, 6pm at the Stade de France.