SAINT-DENIS, France — Italy defeated Spain 2-0 to reach the Euro quarterfinals. A big reason why? Long suffering Giorgio Chiellini.
1. Chiellini stands in the Italian line for the anthems next to Gianluigi Buffon, their arms tight around each other. Spain loom to their left. The atmosphere inside Stade de France is heavy under a low and threatening sky; it feels more like the moments before a final than the seventh match of the Round of 16. It feels that way because it was the final in 2012, when Spain tore Italy to pieces, 4-0. Chiellini endured that humiliation.
2. He assumes his position on the left, beside Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, a world-class defense and, along with Buffon, Italy’s only real hope of survival. All three have the added burden of playing on previous cards. Another will see them banned for the quarterfinal. That’s true for 10 of Italy’s 23, against only one warned Spaniard. The Italians have been playing like thinly disguised beasts.
3. In the 3rd minute, a hard rain begins to fall. The 31-year-old Chiellini starts running with his narrow shoulders even more hunched than usual.
4. Four minutes later, Chiellini thumps a dangerous and advancing Alvaro Morata to the ground. It is his first tackle. Six days ago, the two were still teammates at Juventus; Real Madrid then bought the 23-year-old Morata back. “Wear a helmet,” Morata said Chiellini told him before the match. Chiellini was not joking.
5. The Italians take the first decent chance of the game when Graziano Pelle heads the ball toward goal, forcing David De Gea to make a good diving stop. Before the ensuing corner, Chiellini wrestles in the box with Juanfran. The Turkish referee calls them both over and tells them to stop. They immediately begin hand-checking each other again.
6. In the 11th minute, Emanuele Giaccherini nearly converts a spectacular bicycle kick, stopped again by a diving De Gea, who banks the ball off the post and away. Several Italians hold their hands to their mouths or their heads. Chiellini walks back to his position, stoic, looking like an old postman only at the beginning of his day’s deliveries.
7. Chiellini hits the ground for the first time when Morata gets his opening revenge, jumping into his back on a high ball.
8. Under pressure, Chiellini tries to deliver a long pass down the right wing to Alessandro Florenzi. The rain has stopped, but the ball is a touch heavy on the wet ground. Florenzi slides for it in vain. Chiellini has taken his measurement.
9. In the 21st minute, the Spaniards advance. Chiellini grapples again with Morata, the afternoon’s signature nemeses decided, and a crossed ball soars harmlessly over their heads.
10. Less than a minute later, Chiellini tangles with Sergio Ramos in the Italian box. Both men go down. The referee refuses to give a foul. Chiellini and Ramos say some pointed things to each other.
11. In the 32nd minute, the Italians are awarded a dangerous free kick, middle of the pitch, 25 yards out. Chiellini occupies a narrow space in the Spanish wall. He falls back when Eder takes his strike. The ball finds the hole. Once again, De Gea makes the diving stop, but the rebound is soft and banks off a charging Giaccherini. Chiellini is storming toward the net, his skinny legs swinging in space, looking like a man who has been thrown from his horse. His left leg somehow finds the ball. His eyes go wide. Chiellini 1, Spain 0.
12. He kisses his wrist. Then he stares toward his bench, pumping his fist. “Let’s go,” he is saying. “Let’s go.”
13. Now Spain press. Chiellini pursues Andres Iniesta outside the Italian box. Chiellini looks like a just-woken night watchman chasing down a faster thief, but a Nolito foul ends the threat. Chiellini and Iniesta shake hands after their minor skirmish. Theirs is a different, perhaps more amicable contest than the one between Chiellini and Morata.
14. After a long run, Giaccherini takes a long shot near the top of the box. Yet again, De Gea makes the diving save, his hand stretched high across his goal, and yet again, most of the Italians look as though they have been struck by lightning. Chiellini looks as though he’s been told some mildly distressing news that he’ll deal with in the morning.
15. The halftime whistle blows. Chiellini walks off, having an animated discussion with the officials. They are not especially interested in what he has to say.
16. Chiellini is the last player back on the pitch at the start of the second half. He has a conversation with 23-year-old Mattia De Sciglio. They are making plans for the left side of the pitch. Their side of the pitch.
17. Chiellini yells more instructions at De Sciglio. He draws him closer to the point where he’s almost the fourth of four in the back now.
18. Just four minutes into the half, Spain get their first opportunity. Morata, unmarked for once, heads the ball into Buffon’s hands. Chiellini turns to an empty space to issue a series of complaints to the man who still isn’t there.
19. Spain are really attacking now. Chiellini heads away one chance, scrubs away another with his foot.
20. He begins his inevitable physical turn, when he starts looking set upon and betrayed, like a man who is about to become a werewolf and is long past done with his curse.
21. Eder breaks free on a long sprint down the right. He blasts the ball into De Gea. Chiellini, who had been advancing to join the attack, stops and begins his retreat.
22. The Italians clear yet another Spanish threat. Chiellini applauds De Sciglio’s effort. It’s as though De Sciglio’s legs are following the instructions that Chiellini’s can’t anymore.
23. Eder crumples in the middle of the pitch, but the referee doesn’t award a foul. Play stops anyway. The game is starting to take a nasty turn. Chiellini and David Silva have a chat about it. Their conversation ends with Chiellini putting his hand on Silva’s head.
24. With about 25 minutes to go, Italian coach Antonio Conte shouts commands at Chiellini. His prized defender, one of the principal pivots of Conte’s tactical genius, nods and then nods again.
25. Another Spanish advance develops. Chiellini runs around the high-middle of the Italian box. He circles and swoops like a hunting bird before the ball almost miraculously finds his feet and he clears it away. One moment he looks lost; the next he looks as though he knew where he was all along.
26. Twenty minutes left. Chiellini’s new target is substitute Aritz Aduriz. Chiellini welcomes him to the action by climbing his back. Soon after, Morata is subbed off, too, a portrait of young defeat. That particular threat has been eliminated. Many more remain.
27. On a corner, Ramos beats Chiellini to the ball but heads it wide. Chiellini looks like a stevedore who is three-quarters through his shift and has just realized his next load is scrap iron.
28. Less than 15 minutes to go, the Spanish are really threatening. Buffon is forced to make two good saves. Chiellini stands near the top of the box, his hands on his hips. He is still on Aduriz mostly. It has been a long time since Italy were comfortably out of their half. Now 10 minutes left to hold off Spain.
29. Six minutes out, and Chiellini places the four or five men nearest him, moving them feet and then inches, an old soldier trying to divine the defense that will allow him to hold a battle’s most sacred acre of land.
30. At the end of regulation, the Spanish earn a corner. It’s cleared away. Four minutes of injury time are added. It looks as though Italy won’t hang on. Suddenly the play breaks. A long ball floats to Matteo Darmian on the right. His cross batters around the box before it bounces to Pelle. He launches a volley past De Gea: 2-0. The Italians mob each other in a corner of the Spanish end. Chiellini doesn’t run to join them. He jogs. He is the last man to the pile, but he lands on top of it.
31. The whistle blows. At the Italian bench, madness. At the Italian end, Chiellini turns and walks slowly back to Buffon. Alone, together, they share a long and sweet embrace. Four years ago, they lost by four. Now Europe will have a new champion. It might yet be them.
32. Chiellini pauses just before he disappears into the tunnel, vanishing from the view for the last time. He looks exhausted. He looks elated. He looks like a man whose dreams make him suffer, but he loves to dream them all the same.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He’s on Twitter at @MySecondEmpire