Spain and Italy have history. Not only have the teams met five times in the last four European Championships – including the final at Euro 2012, which Spain won 4-0 – but their semi-final at Wembley also pits Luis Enrique against Italy for the first time since he suffered one of the great injustices of football history at the World Cup in 1994.
The quarter-final between Italy and Spain at USA 94 produced one of the most infamous images of that World Cup: Enrique remonstrating with Hungarian referee Sandor Puhl while his mouth and nose were full of blood after he had been struck by a brutal, off-the-ball elbow from Italy right-back Mauro Tassotti.
Enrique was incredulous, verging on hysterical, as Puhl failed not just to send Tassotti off – and thereby award Spain a penalty – but to punish him at all. Enrique, then a 24-year-old with Real Madrid, dropped to the turf in disbelief, smatterings of blood staining his resplendent white shirt. “Luis Enrique wanted to kill the referee and Tassotti,” later explained Senen Cortegoso, Spain’s physio at the time.
Watching the incident back, it’s difficult to see how Puhl missed it. The Hungarian is on the periphery of the box – on the same side as Enrique and Tassotti – as Andoni Goikoetxea’s cross is whipped in from the opposite flank. Enrique attempts to meet the cross, but is stopped in his tracks by Tassotti’s elbow.
Enrique’s nose was broken and Tassotti was retroactively suspended for eight games by the Italian football federation and Fifa. He never played for Italy again, the Spain game his seventh and final cap. “There was nothing premeditated. I had nothing against him,” said Tassotti late last year when, as assistant to Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine side, they met Spain in the Nations League. “I’ve always maintained that it was an instinctive gesture, but I was wrong and fate made me pay for it. I lost out on the chance to play in a World Cup final.”
The incident occurred late in the game, by which point Italy were leading 2-1 thanks to goals from the Baggio boys – Dino with a rocket in the first half and a laser-precision strike from Roberto in the dying minutes. Italy held out for the win and advanced to meet Bulgaria in the semi-finals.
Enrique never had the chance to play against Italy again, but the elbow has not been forgotten in Spain. It has even made its way into culture, with the Spanish indie group Deneuve calling their fourth album El Codazo de Tassotti (The Elbow of Tassotti) in 2007.
A year later, Italy and Spain met in the quarter-finals at Euro 2008, their first competitive encounter since 1994. Spain had never beaten Italy in a game of consequence and the Enrique-Tassotti incident added to their sense of injustice. Enrique had just taken over as coach of the Barcelona B side and spoke of “avenging the vendetta” against Italy. “I would love for [David] Villa to avenge me,” he said. “Hopefully the world champions can be eliminated.”
Enrique got his wish, but not through a David Villa goal, as had so often been the case at Euro 2008. A tense, cagey affair went to penalties, with Cesc Fàbregas scoring the winning spot kick after Iker Casillas had saved Antonio Di Natale’s tame penalty. On the morning of the game, Enrique’s bloodied face was plastered over the front page of Marca as a rallying cry.
That win was the most important in Spain’s history: their inferiority complex against Italy was shattered, the beast finally slain, and they set about dominating the international game for the next four years. Since Baggio’s winner in 1994, the two sides have never met at another World Cup, always bumping into each other at the Euros. Italy have only beaten Spain once in a competitive fixtures since 1994: their 2-0 win in the last-16 stage of Euro 2016.
The Enrique story has continued in club football. When he took over at Roma in 2011, it wasn’t long before he came up against Tassotti, who was serving as Massimiliano Allegri’s assistant at Milan. The Spaniard was quick to play down the issue. “I will shake Tassotti’s hand,” he said. “It’s a shame 17 years have passed, as this means we are 17 years older. I have no problems with Tassotti. What happens on the pitch stays there. I know Tassotti regretted what he did. We have to move on.”
When asked about the subject this week in the build-up to the semi-final, Enrique spoke fondly about Italy and even had some friendly words for his old foe. “It’s part of my sporting history,” he said. “I was lucky enough to meet Tassotti, a very good person, and I have no revenge. I love Italy. I like Rome, an incredible city where I had a wonderful experience, even if only for one year. For me it is a pleasure to play against Italy.”
It will also be a pleasure to watch. Having had contrasting philosophies for decades, these two sides are now closer in style than any time in the last 40 years thanks to Roberto Mancini. Italy have been the team of the tournament, smashing worn-out stereotypes by playing their own iteration of tiki-taka that Spain would be proud of. A fixture that historically pitted style against substance is now very much style versus style. This time, the winner will be the audience.