The art of defusing tension at a tense moment for a team is known as “sdrammatizzare”. No need for a long-winded sentence. Just one word.
The term was referenced by Italy’s most totemic figure at Euro 2020 in captain Giorgio Chiellini ahead of his side’s quarter-final with Belgium. It proved prophetic on Tuesday.
On first viewing, his light-hearted japes at the coin toss with Spain captain Jordi Alba to decide which end of the stadium that the penalty shoot-out would be taken at Wembley looked innocent enough. Even sporting.
Not that Alba was particularly amused by Chiellini’s laughing and joking – and certainly not by his bear-hug as they parted, judging by his body language.
To shrewd observers, Chiellini had inflicted the first psychological blow before a spot-kick was taken in a shoot-out that the Azzurri would go on to win.
If tomorrow’s final with England is likely to be settled by the barest of margins, Chiellini will aim to muster a card from somewhere. It’s his national duty.
When it comes to this 36-year-old son of Pisa, there is plenty more to him than meets the eye.
An uncomplicated, uncompromising defender, Chiellini planned on studying medicine at university before concentrating on football.
His academic traits did see him complete a degree in business administration. He has also spoken about the importance of the mental side of the game on regular occasions.
He is more than intelligent enough to recognise that his jinks with Alba may have planted a scintilla of doubt in the minds of the watching Spain players.
In such pressurised environments, the small percentages can matter.
Certainly for Italy, whose penalty shoot-out history is littered with plenty of the bad. It has seen greats such as Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio suffer tortuous, crushing moments.
Like any good, smart captain, Chiellini would have been aware of all the baggage as his Azzurri team-mates approached their own moment of destiny. The ultimate one arrives tomorrow when it is all on the line again.
In football combat, Chiellini has graduated with honours from the imposing and rugged ‘catenaccio’ school of defending that has been a hallmark of great Italian sides over the years and served the nation’s biggest domestic club in Juventus infinitely well in particular.
The veteran – and his defensive cohort for club and country in Leonardo Bonucci – are rightly spoken about in the same breath as Claudio Gentile and Gaeteno Scirea, legends in blue and black and white.
Victory tomorrow would guild two honour-laden careers.
The silver medals they both received for being losing finalists in Euro 2012 after Italy lost 4-0 to Spain do not take pride of place. A gold one tomorrow would.
A player well deserving of that overused moniker of ‘world class’, Chiellini has improved with age, like a fine Chianti.
His frenzied reaction with his team-mates after denying Turkey’s Burak Yilmaz a late consolation in Italy’s 3-0 win in their first group game was one of the moments of the tournament. It also laid down a marker. This is someone who misses nothing.
His ex-Juve team-mate Alvaro Morata once said that training against him was like trying to steal food from a gorilla’s cage.
Tellingly, a cartoon of an ape used to appear on Chiellini’s website.
It suggests he had got into Morata’s head and points to a carefully-cultivated image.
Morata may have won a battle in scoring against him on Tuesday, but Chiellini won the war. Morata missed his penalty.
As leader of a side whose togetherness and spirit has perhaps only been matched by England and Denmark at Euro 2020, Chiellini also has some able accomplices in mind games.
Marco Verratti spoke about England’s penalty in Wednesday’s win over Denmark as being ‘generous’ – while the nation’s press went to town in condemnation and professed confidence in Italy’s bid for glory in contrast to their boring opponents. ‘England, you are ours’ roared the Corriere della Sera, not without confidence.
As a throw-back, it harkens back to the England rugby union team’s World Cup final in 2003 – another finale between two countries whose passion for sporting success is uninhibited.
“Is that all you have got’ declared the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph in the finals build-up in reference to Jonny Wilkinson’s ability to kick points. Indeed, it was.