The 2008 European Championships will be a tournament of familiarity. In Group A the Swiss and Turkish players will exchange pleasantries just a few years after kicking their way to brutal injury and suspension in a World Cup qualifying play-off in Istanbul. Group D will see Spain, Russia and Greece in opposition, just as they were in the group stages four years ago. Neighbours and rivals Germany and Austria meet in the final matchday of group B in Vienna, which recalls unpalatable memories of their mutually beneficial and grotesquely manufactured result in Gijon in 1982. Romania and Holland were paired together in qualifying and are together again in Group C, although this will be overshadowed somewhat by the presence in the group of Italy and France, who on 17th June 2008 in Zurich will meet once again in international competition.
That date marks twenty-two years to the very day that I first saw France and Italy play each other. The World Cup in Mexico opened my eyes to the wonders of football outside of England and that summer I was, like many others, bewitched by the French midfield of Giresse, Tigana, Fernandez and Platini. In the knockout phase they faced Italy, a meeting of European and World champions, which the French deservedly won two-nil. It was Platini, he of Italian heritage and captain of the mighty Juventus, who chipped in the crucial opening goal to help secure their first competitive victory over Italy in sixty-six years.
That victory could be said to be an example of one national footballing stereotype winning out over another, with French flair outwitting Italian defensive acumen. The next time the two teams would meet they proved to be so closely matched in all departments that it kicked off a decade of international rivalry that the continent has not witnessed since the fractious contests between Holland and Germany in the late eighties and early nineties.
Firstly, Luigi di Biagio smashed a penalty against the crossbar to hand victory to the French in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final in Paris after two hours of goalless, tense football. The Euro 2000 final was a far more liberated affair, where a Toldo mistake in the last minute of normal time and a Trezeguet golden goal cruelly snatched away victory from the Italians. Revenge on both counts came for the Azzurri in Berlin just over a year ago, where Trezeguet’s missed penalty in the shootout was mercilessly punished and Italy claimed their fourth World Cup. Since then the French have taken four points out of six in Paris and Milan to just pip their rivals to first place in their qualifying group for Euro 2008.
Although over the period France just about have the upper hand there is no doubt control in this seemingly ongoing battle currently lies with Italy, having snatched the biggest of prizes away from the French in Germany. That match is of course notorious for the incident between Zidane and Materazzi that ended with the greatest player of his generation being sent off in his final game. To use a parallel with the Germany and Holland rivalry mentioned earlier, the incident has cranked up the tension in the same way as when Rijkaard spat on Voller and both were sent off at Italia 90. Revenge will be uppermost in French minds in Zurich, not just for the World Cup but for the ignominious end to the career of their former captain.
Thoughts now move to next June. As the final game in what on paper looks one of the toughest groups an international championship can ever have known, the progression of both teams could hang in the balance during that ninety minutes in the tiny Letzigrund Stadion in Zurich. Veterans of the previous meetings – Thierry Henry, Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro have played in every encounter between the two sides in the last decade whilst Patrick Viera, Alessandro del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon have been at least in every squad – are used to surroundings of far more grandeur like the San Siro, the Stade de France, the Olympic Stadium in Berlin or the de Kuip in Rotterdam. Although the stadium boasts a ghastly athletics track around the pitch, it’s capacity of just under thirty thousand promises to make this a more intimate occasion than the rival sets of players are accustomed to.
And they may meet further down the line – with UEFA’s decision to split the tournament into American football style conferences where groups A and B provide one finalist and C and D the other, there could potentially be a semi-final in Vienna should both teams qualify from the first round and win their quarter-finals. So we are guaranteed one, but there could be even two acts to come in international football’s greatest modern rivalry.