Between Italy and Spain, the semifinalists on Tuesday night have whipped up 23 goals at the Euro. So, this encounter understandably spins around versatility and vibrancy of their attack-bent players, forwards with velcro-touches who pinch the goals, the midfield tricksters conceptualising the strikes, and the pacy flanks-men launching attacks.
Yet for both Italy and Spain, the keys to winning are saddled with their holding midfielders, Jorginho and Sergio Busquets. Spain’s Cesar Azpilicueta got asked who should you stop to stop Italy? Without hesitation he named his Chelsea colleague Jorginho. “Best player in their side,” he said. The same query was shot at Nicolo Barella: “Of course, first you need to control Busquets. All you can do is praise him.”
Neither might figure in the scoresheets, or the assist charts, but in their tempo-controlling, ball-shielding, space-encroaching efficiency would their teams control the game. They are not the gear-shifters, but the gear itself. By ticking themselves, they make the men around them tick.
Spain’s cutting edge in the midfield was perceptible once Busquets, their last link between their golden generation and the new one, rejoined them. He changed them from a ponderous, sterile bunch to a potent and penetrative squadron. His re-entry ushered in a deluge of goals. He unburdened Pedri, liberated Koke and Spain began to click into life; they could collectively turn possession into goal-scoring threat. His superlative game-awareness screened the vulnerable backline from rapid counters. His positioning helped Spain retain and regain possession after losing the ball.
Jorginho’s influence has been similarly profound, the reason he’s the least substituted Italian player in the tournament. Every other player has a ready replacement in Italy’s squad, but for the Brazil-born pivot. Insuperable in both attacking and defensive situations, he has 21 tackles and interceptions —only N’golo Kante, his Chelsea teammate has managed more. His pass-completion rate of 95 percent is the best among midfielders. Besides, he has stitched together more passes under pressure than any other Italian player (68). His game is defined by intelligence, timing and tactical wit rather than moments of explosiveness or beauty, a midfielder who reads the movements of both his teammates and the opposition like a cabbie navigating a busy street.
He is the steel behind the silk — like Busquets — physically assertive, nasty, even ugly so that his teammates could be more indulgent and expansive. It is as if Jorginho invites trouble on to himself so as not to invite it on to others. The safety he promises means Verratti needs to bother less about protecting the ball, like he has to with PSG, Barella needn’t bother as soon as he loses the ball. Giorgio Chiellini can occasionally wander upfield to join the attack trusting Jorginho to fill in the space.
Jorginho’s philosophy: “If there’s a problem, I prefer to swallow that myself than force a team-mate to do so.” Busquets’ fixation: “My only obsession is not to lose the ball and to give my all, make sure I leave it all on the pitch. I am here to help.”
Yet, for all their sameness, they are different. Busquets operates stealthily, invisibly, barely shouts at his teammates or quarrels with referees. Vicente del Bosque put it poetically once: “You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.” Jorginho is the opposite, always belting out instructions and barking out expletives, acquiring the nickname “Radio Jorginho”. Busquets is called a “snowplough” because “he swept up everything” according to ex-teammate Gerard Pique.
Their journeys are different. Busquets’s father Carles was Barcelona’s (perennially) reserve goal-keeper and relatively well-off, but lived in Ciutat Badia, a working-class area with racial conflicts. Yet, he joined the famed La Masia academy and worked his way up and impressed Lionel Messi in a game of rondo (a piggy-in-the-middle training exercise) that requires supersonic passing skills. Messi told Pep Guardiola: “Mister, I want this one in with me in the rondo.”
Around that time, Jorginho was in a rundown car from the small Brazil town of Imbituba to the airport at Florianopolis, before catching a flight to Sao Paulo, then to Frankfurt and Verona. His mother, a footballer herself, knew his future was bleak in their country and hence managed to convince the scouts of Hellas Verona to pick him. Her father was Italian, so he could acquire citizenship too. At Verona, he stayed in a convent of Jesuit priests and pored endless videos of how Barcelona played football. He evolved from being slow and clumsy to feisty and intelligent.
But their twain shall meet again. And only one shall emerge unscathed from the titanic encounter.