Italian forward Mario Balotelli, left, and Spanish forward Fernando Torres… (AFP/Getty Images )
TORONTO -- A month ago, Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli was ready to pull out of the European Championship amid a game-fixing scandal that implicated members of the national team.
On Sunday, Prandelli and that same embattled national team have a chance to win soccer's second-most prestigious prize. And though it will be an uphill climb against a Spanish team ranked No. 1 in the world, it might not be a good idea to bet against Italy in this one.
After all, this is the third time in the last three decades that Italian soccer has been racked by charges of illegal gambling, and on each of the previous occasions the national team helped cleanse the wound by winning a major championship.
In 1982, Paolo Rossi, suspended two years when he was caught up in a betting scam, came back just in time to score six goals and help Italy win its first World Cup since World War II.
Then six years ago, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was implicated in another gambling probe. A month later he gave up only one goal in four elimination games as Italy won the World Cup again.
Now Buffon, Italy's captain and one of four players left from that 2006 championship team, says this year's team wants to cover the latest tarnish with a triumph as well.
"There's definitely something special, beyond all the talk that has been made out of it," Buffon, who had his spending habits scrutinized during this latest investigation, told reporters in Kiev, Ukraine, site of Sunday's final. "Italians have a sense of respect and love for their jersey that stretches beyond all limits."
Among those who have rallied to the team's side is Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Last month, some in the Italian government were suggesting the national team take a sabbatical from international play to get its house in order, a suggestion Prandelli said he would have complied with had the president asked him.
Instead, Napolitano attended Italy's European Championship opener, a 1-1 tie with Spain, and will hold a reception for the team in Rome regardless of how Sunday's game ends.
"We really felt his present and his support," Prandelli said of the president. "He showed a lot of confidence in us at a time when not a lot of people had confidence in this squad."
Italy, in fact, has been an underdog since the tournament draw in December, when it was put in the so-called "Group of Death" with Spain, Croatia and Ireland. Then given virtually no chance against England or Germany in the knockout stage, Italy wound up beating both to earn a rematch with Spain.
But if Italy, already a team on a mission, is beginning to look like a team of destiny, Spain is chasing some history of its own.
With a victory, Spain would not only become the only team to win consecutive European titles but, with its 2010 World Cup victory in between, it would be the first to hold three major titles at the same time.
And in each of those tournaments Spain followed the same conservative blueprint to victory, failing to concede a goal in its last nine knockout games and scoring just enough to win.
The once-invincible Spanish are vulnerable, however. If Portugal had let Cristiano Ronaldo have a go at a goal, Spain might have lost on penalty kicks in the semifinals. As it is, it survived and now must contend with the electric and creative Mario Balotelli, who scored the two goals Italy needed to end Germany's 15-game winning streak in its semifinal game.
"It would be a lie to say I'm not worried about them," Spanish defender Sergio Ramos said of Balotelli and his teammates. "But we are not obsessing."
Still some on the Spanish side feel an urgency to grab this last brass ring, knowing they have a chance to leave a lasting legacy. The core of the team is aging, with many of the key players — goalkeeper Iker Casillas, midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso as well as defender Carles Puyol and forward David Villa, both of whom sat out the tournament because of injuries — now over 30.
"The truth is yes, it is something we think about," Ramos said of Spain's hope of winning a third title. "That's what we're playing for on Sunday. It's something that will never be surpassed as no other national team has managed it before and we have the chance now to do it.
"[But] whatever happens Sunday, Spain has already made history."
Italy can say the same thing. After opening the tournament under a dark cloud of suspicion, it will be playing the final under clear skies, regardless of the weather. But as long as they've made it this far, the Italians figure, they might as well go ahead and win the tournament.
It has happened before.
"When you dream, you always dream big," Prandelli said after his team advanced to the title game. "This is the beginning of the dream."