Italy-Spain is not a game that brings out the best in us. It's not fair play and after-match drinks, it's not Scrabble with your grandparents, it's not the game you want on Christmas or Mother's Day or honeymoons. Croatia's Ivan Perisic, who scored the goal to send La Roja their way, crossed an Italian journalist after the game: 'You guys should be grateful,' he grinned. 'Now you don't have to play Croatia!' Any other team, and the Italians would laugh at the joke. Not this time, Ivan. You'd better hope Italy don't come back your way in the final.
Italy-Spain is not tiki-taka against catenaccio, it's opulence versus resurgence. It's the established church against the heathen at the gate. It's the fading majesty of Andres Iniesta, weighed down not by 32 years of age but by dozens of trophies, trying to undo the Renaissance of the Italian defence: gold versus iron. It's Real Madrid and Juventus poster-boy Alvaro Morata against the Cinderella Men that are Italy's forwards: great expectations against downtrodden grit.
Italy-Spain is not a Round of 16, it's an accidental final, a rerun of the Euro 2012 showdown when La Roja won it 4-0. It's an opportunity to make this tournament worth it, a chance for Coach Antonio Conte to wipe out the disillusionment and endear the fans. Hold no punches, my captain, take no prisoners. Who cares if they lose the game after that 3-0 to Germany? Win this one and we're good, Antonio. The battle is worth the campaign.
And that's because Italy-Spain is not just a rivalry between two equal powers, it's rankling resentment and bitterness and envy. It's one team stumbling in the dark for the past ten years, looking for the laurel crown that was wrenched from its head, while the other team takes everything, all the drinks at the party and every last crumb of the cake. It's the reason why the means no longer matter, boys. What may or may not happen after this game is of no relevance to us. Especially not this time, when the path ahead makes it look like nasty old Sepp Blatter came back and deliberately stacked things against us: Spain first, then Germany, then hosts France. One imagines the final will be played against the Avengers.
Italy-Spain is not pizza versus paella, flamenco versus Opera, guitars versus mandolins or any other trite cliché. Italy-Spain is unemployed youth that leaves home and takes a job in your restaurants and airports and makes your Cappuccino and maybe finds the time to watch the game when they get home. It's the south that took the financial crisis like an uppercut to the jaw, it's football as consolation and communion, it's sport pregnant with populism, it's Gerard Pique's middle finger and Grillo's 'Io tifo Ghana' and Podemos and Virginia Raggi, it's rap music in a language Americans don't understand. It's a church outside of the church.
Italy-Spain is not bad luck, it's fateful revenge. It's not antagonism, it's rage. It's not Las Vegas, it's Vietnam. It's not mud, it's blood. It's not a game: it's sport. And it's as damn good as sport gets.