Giorgio Chiellini is having a whale of a time. That much was evident long before he arrived grinning for the coin tosses to decide who would go first and at which end in the penalty shootout to decide Tuesday's semi-final against Spain.
We could see it in the curtain-raiser against Turkey, after Chiellini slid to take the ball off the toes of Burak Yilmaz. Italy were 3-0 up in the second minute of injury time but their captain leapt to his feet, pumping his fist before high-fiveing every team-mate in a five-yard radius.
Against Belgium in the quarter-final, Chiellini and Axel Witsel were scolded by the referee for tussling at a corner. Chiellini responded by wrapping his arms around his opponent like a kid showing their parent they weren't really antagonising their younger sibling. The smile on his face was a promise that "we won't do it again – at least until you're not looking".
A semi-final at Wembley stoked further enthusiasm. Even as Italy struggled to break Spain’s oppressive monopoly of the ball, Chiellini somehow still looked like a man living his best life, whirling his arms to encourage supporters behind the goal and planting a kiss on the back of Leonardo Bonucci’s head as his Juventus team-mate folded over double with fatigue.
Then came penalties. Before a coin had been flipped, the contrast in the body language of Chiellini and Jordi Alba was striking. The Italian was loose and late, bounding over after his Spanish counterpart had already convened with officials and grabbing him by the shoulder for an uninvited squeeze.
Alba’s posture was rigid, his smile uncomfortable and terse. Confusion ensued as the coin hit the turf for the first time with both players believing they had won the right to decide at which end of the stadium the shootout should take place.
“Liar!” shouted Chiellini in Italian and Spanish, but still he grinned from ear to ear, giving Alba a shove.
The gesture was visibly unappreciated yet his jovial demeanour disarmed everyone, officials smiling along with him. The final act, after Italy had been confirmed as the winners of that first toss and a separate one to decide who should shoot first, came in the form of a bear hug. Chiellini squeezed Alba so tight that he lifted him off the grass.
Ease the tension
Was it all a deliberate psychological ploy? Some in the Spanish media accused Chiellini of humiliating Alba, seven inches shorter and made to look like a doll in his arms. But such ostentatious behaviour was likely intended as much for the benefit of his own colleagues as it was to unsettle their opponents.
Before the Belgium game Chiellini said a captain’s role was to “sdrammatizzare” – to diminish and ease the tension in important moments for the rest of his team. “There’s no need to raise anxieties higher than they already are,” he said. “Adrenaline will come on its own.”
It ought not to surprise anyone that Chiellini thinks a lot about the mental side of the game. He is an academically curious individual who wanted to study medicine at university but could not combine that with a football career and so settled for a master’s degree in business administration.
In his biography Io, Giorgio, Chiellini describes the psychological aspect of anticipating a striker’s thoughts as “the most important part of my game”, but he has always sought to impose himself on opponents.
Spain’s Álvaro Morata likened training against him to trying to steal food from a gorilla’s cage, but the great ape persona was the defender’s own creation, cultivated with a chest-beating celebration and a cartoon image that used to appear on his website.
Team-mates have spoken at this tournament about the impact of his example. Chiellini limped out of Italy's second group game, against Switzerland, with a thigh injury. Matteo Pessina welcomed his return for the Belgium game. "You know how important he is for us on a physical and psychological level." he said. "He lifts the whole team."
The 36-year-old is not only there to offer encouragement. There were concerns in Italy about whether his body was ready for this tournament after a season interrupted repeatedly by injury, but he has been a commanding presence, subduing Romelu Lukaku in the quarter-final and dominating his aerial duels throughout.
If Chiellini has looked even more joyful than usual perhaps it is because he knows this tournament could be his last. Even his future at Juventus is not guaranteed, with negotiations continuing over a new contract after his previous one expired at the end of June.
It was put to him last week that he is the first Italy captain without a club, though it was quickly added that he is in the same position as Lionel Messi. "Yes," said Chiellini with a chuckle. "And we're both left-footers too."
If there is another trait they share it may be a knack for reassuring team-mates simply by their presence. As Jorginho delivered the decisive penalty into the corner of Unai Simón's goal on Tuesday, most Italy players sprinted forward to celebrate with him. Chiellini instead turned to Manuel Locatelli, who had missed his attempt at the start of the shootout. Not for the first time that evening he reached out for a hug. This time it was warmly reciprocated.