The dream Confederations Cup final is to be. Spain, the most recently crowned world champion, will play Brazil, five times a World Cup winner and host of next year’s tournament, in the cathedral of global soccer that is Rio’s Maracanã on Sunday night (12 midnight, Telecinco).
But it could easily have been very different. While the lineup for Sunday’s final may have seemed written in the stars at the start of the tournament, Cesare Prandelli’s Italy had interpreted the signs rather differently, subjecting Spain to the most grueling and closest of semifinal contests in the stifling Fortaleza heat and humidity on Thursday night that ultimately took 14 penalties to decide.
Jesús Navas, the timid winger from Seville recently signed by Manchester City, scored the decisive strike that sent Spain through after Leonardo Bonucci had been the first from either team to slip up in the shootout, sending spot kick number 13 soaring over the bar.
“I don’t remember the last time that I took a penalty,” Navas said afterwards. “I don’t think I ever have, but I knew exactly where I was going to put it from the moment I started walking toward the goal. I was very calm because the confidence of the team didn’t let me get nervous. I didn’t even pray, I wasn’t given time. I was convinced I was going to score from the moment they told me I was taking one.”
The proceeding 120 minutes had been nothing like the 4-0 humiliation Spain inflicted on Italy a year ago in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev. This time the Italians knew how to compete, dominating and denying Spain its usual control of the ball in the first half and then evenly matching it after Vicente del Bosque corrected his tactics — hauling off David Silva for the more sprightly Navas — over the second 45-minute period.
It was only in the final half-hour — in which the Salamancan coach surprised many by bringing on the normally defensively minded Javi Martínez as Fernando Torres’ replacement as striker, rather than David Villa — that Spain finally took the reins. But it remained unable to break the 0-0 deadlock. Both teams came close: Juventus’s Emanuele Giaccherini hit the post for the Italians, while Xavi saw his strike deflected on to the woodwork by Gigi Buffon. But there was ultimately no avoiding the penalty lottery.
In the event, Navas drew the winning ticket to put Spain into its first Confederations Cup final, the only international title that still eludes it. “Let me breathe,” pleaded an exhausted Del Bosque when asked to offer his assessment of the match up against Brazil, eventually revealing that his players were “excited like little boys” at the prospect of playing the tournament host at Maracanã.