In the days of the Empire, England was the posting they gave you as punishment or a backhanded promotion; nothing has really changed since. An island filled with barbarian tribes that had difficulty uniting to fight the Romans, England's football team epitomises that past splendidly. To be an English football fan is to wallow in disappointment and self-doubt...and of course agonising defeats at the hands of Germany.
This has little to do with talent, for no one can forget the excitement or energy when Michael Owen burst onto the scene at an age when he was barely old enough to drink. He was preceded by others who carried the hope of England, like Gary Linekar, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, and of course, Bobby Charlton. Yet despite a dubious win against West Germany which gave them the 1966 World Cup, England have been chokers par excellence.
Rome, or Italy as it has preferred to dilute itself for the past 16 centuries, is the cradle of Western civilisation. Clearly a favourite of the Prime Mover, the boot of Europe has been blessed with a long and rich history, breathtaking beauty, umpteen geniuses in the arts and sciences, and the temperament to enjoy it all. Warm climes, spectacular food, and beautiful people, it is impossible not to fall in love with Jupiter's chosen people.
For those who prefer statistics over the romance and spirit of the game, the last time England beat Italy in a major tournament or its qualifying stages was in 1977 when Gli Azzurri went down 2-0 at Wembley; the two have since drawn twice and Italy has won four times. However, the two are quite even in overall head-to-head overall: they have met 24 times with seven draws, eight English victories and nine Italian triumphs. Italy is a four-time World Cup champion from six finals appearances, two back-to-back wins coming before the war in 1934 and 1938. Nonetheless, Italy and England share no major rivalries, like that between the Netherlands and Germany, or bear grudges as England does against Germany.
In 2014, England has reached the World Cup with a better performance than Italy. The Mediterranean country has struggled for form since their surprise 2006 victory, crashing to a humiliating first round exit in the 2010 World Cup; the last Azzurri victory against a foreign side was almost a year ago in 2013. However, Italy comes with a more experienced side, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi still capable of being lethal. Support that with the young and talented striker Mario Balotelli and Marco Verratti in midfield, and you have a team that cannot be written off just yet. Gianluigi Buffon will continue in goal.
England seem to have pinned their hopes on the up and coming Raheem Sterling though they can also boast of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard in their line-up. They will need the attacking strength for Italian football is known for its obdurate defence and the Italians have in Cesare Prandelli a coach who knows how to use his strengths.
When these two weakened football powerhouses go at each other this evening, the Three Lions will rely, as usual, on their power and long-ball technique, and the Italians on their sprezzatura - insouciance, for those limited to the Anglo tongue. Football is not just a game: it is life itself, and as in life, gli Azzurri will bring to it theatre, art, war, and love. I cannot but cheer for such a side.