Spain's resplendent champions stand accused of suffocating the game. In Italy, football struggles to extricate itself from its umpteenth scandal. And yet there is an excellent chance that on Sunday night in Kiev's Olympic Stadium the two teams representing these nations will provide a contest of skill and courage to burnish the game's reputation.
This is the tournament that defies you to look away. If 20 million people tuning in to watch the drama of England playing Italy in a quarter-final seems remarkable, the figure of 12m Britons switching on for Italy's semi-final with Germany on Thursday night is astounding, particularly with Rafael Nadal on the other channel. On Sunday night the two best teams in the competition promise to provide spectators, whether in the stadium or at home, with the climax that such an entrancing championship deserves.
Two sets of desires will collide in the Ukrainian capital when the team of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Iker Casillas meets that of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gianluigi Buffon. There is the yearning of Spain to cap their victories in Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup by becoming the first side to win three major tournaments in a row since Uruguay took the Olympic title – the forerunner of the World Cup – in 1924 and 1928, then added the inaugural World Cup itself in 1930. And there is Italy's fierce ambition to overcome the match-fixing scandal undermining their domestic game in order to show that in its sheer quality, their football remains capable of reaching the ultimate peaks.
"The truth is, yes, it is something we think about," Sergio Ramos, Spain's dashing defender, said on Friday, when asked about the significance of winning a third consecutive major trophy. "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."
Uruguayans will dispute that, but never mind. "Now we have the chance to do it," Ramos continued. "Whatever happens, Spain has already made history, but we obviously want to win this championship again after all the work this team has done. It's cost us a lot to get where we are, and now we have to show our best level against a great team."
Three weeks ago these two sides gave Euro 2012 its first outstanding match with a 1-1 draw in Gdansk. Both managers showed their courage by opting for a brand new tactical plan, previously untested. But there was nothing academic about the encounter. You did not need to know Spain's 4-6-0 from Italy's 3-5-2 to recognise that this was football of compelling intellectual and physical merits.
Since that night, layers of intrigue have been added to Spain's campaign, and a new lustre to Italy's. Are the short-passing maestros of Vicente del Bosque's team now past their unbeatable best, or will we see one more great performance from Xavi and Iniesta as they attempt to defend their title? And has Cesare Prandelli given Italy a new freedom of expression, through putting his trust in such unpredictable virtuosi as Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, to go with their always formidable technique and defensive discipline?
There is no end to the drama inherent in this contest between the world champions of 2006 and 2010, and to the history involved. It was against Italy that Spain began their extraordinary run of 19 wins in competitive matches four years ago when, under Luis Aragonés, they eliminated Marcello Lippi's side on penalties in the quarter-finals of the European Championship in Vienna. Spain are after their third title but a win for Italy tomorrow would complete a very different triple. Totonero, Calciopoli and Calcioscommese are the key names, but they are not those of Prandelli's reserve midfielders.
Totonero was the name given to the Serie A betting scandal from which Enzo Bearzot's Azzurri were still recovering when they went to the World Cup in 1982 and triumphed thanks to the goals of Paolo Rossi, who had just returned from a two-year ban received as punishment for his alleged part in the affair. Calciopoli was the 2006 inquiry which discovered that several top clubs, including Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina, had been covertly influencing the selection of referees, an imbroglio from which Lippi's Italy emerged to fight their way to a triumph in the World Cup in Germany.
Now we have Calcioscommesse, an investigation into another betting scam throughout Italy's top four divisions, leading to long bans for such prominent figures as Beppe Signori and Cristiano Doni, the former international strikers.
The echoes roll on, like thunder approaching and receding. Earlier this month Domenico Criscito, the Zenit St Petersburg left‑back, was withdrawn from Prandelli's party after being questioned by the Calcioscommesse investigators. "He would have been under pressure which no human being could bear," Prandelli said. Leonardo Bonucci, the Juventus defender, was also named, but remained with the squad.
After this, a victory tomorrow would be added to those of 1982 and 2006 as evidence for a study into the psychology of Italy's footballers, examining the causes of their apparent need for a dark backdrop against which to perform their greatest deeds.
Italy's 54-year-old head coach won admiration when he declared that if it was necessary to withdraw the entire team from the tournament, then so be it. What Prandelli shares with Del Bosque – his senior by six years, outrageously sacked by Real Madrid a decade ago for lacking charisma – is the ability to convey the feeling that while football may be a wonderful game, and certainly worth a lifetime's dedication, it is not everything in life.
We saw on Thursday what is possible when a great coach finds a way to rid his players of their inhibitions. All Italy's finest attributes were on show in an enthralling victory over Germany, along with a sense of liberation that may soon allow Prandelli's work to bear comparison with the work of his greatest predecessors: Vittorio Pozzo, Ferruccio Valcareggi, Enzo Bearzot, Arrigo Sacchi and Lippi.
As he attempts to repeat the victory achieved by Valcareggi in 1968, his personal blend of profound humility and enlightened self-belief is deeply beguiling. "Spain are still the favourites for the final but I think they know very well now who we are and what we can do," he said on Friday. "I have always said that they are a reference point, and they are, but we can be one, too."
The shadow across Spain's campaign is altogether less serious, since it concerns nothing more than a philosophical dispute over their style of play, which is aimed at denying their opponents the use of the ball. So effectively have Spain's forwards turned attack into the most efficient form of defence that Antonio Di Natale's strike in the 61st minute of their opening match remains the only goal scored against them so far in the tournament.
Thanks to the use of social media among the more engaged football fans, the argument is being prosecuted with the fervour of the inquisitions that took place in 15th‑century Spain. Today's believers and heretics are hurling their accusations on message boards and Twitter feeds, one side claiming that we are watching the most creatively exalted team in the history of football while the other accuses them of denying the game the oxygen of dynamism and balanced competition.
Maybe the heretics are just bored by Spain's long sequence of unbroken success. That would be no more than human nature at work, exaggerated by the shortened attention spans of life in the 21st century. But it is odd to see football fans anxious to hasten the end of an era of success that, once it is over, will come to be seen as a golden age.
Spain's ball-manipulators will go down in the history of international football alongside Austria's Wunderteam, Hungary's Magical Magyars, Pele's Brazil and Holland's Cruyff-led total footballers. So make the most of them while they are still with us. And if they lose on Sunday, then let it be to an Italy playing the way Prandelli has tried to inspire, with freshness and without fear, trusting in skill and instinct, concerned only to present the best of themselves to a final that, given the ingredients and the formula, and the mutual respect between the teams, promises to take its place among the very finest.