Last updated at 19:45, Sunday 24th June 2012

Azzurri have a familiar cause


Gary Leboff

Sports psychologist Gary Leboff thinks Italy's match-fixing shame could make them a real threat in the Euro 2012 knockout stages...

Have you spotted any trends at Euro 2012? If not, take a closer look at the qualifiers for the last eight.

Spain, Portugal and Greece all have something in common. It clearly isn't the quality of their football, although if Spain continue to under-perform, it might be yet. What all three nations have in common is the gloomy state of their domestic economies.

To a sports psychologist, this is no coincidence. In fact, going out of your way to back sides representing nations in financial meltdown might be a good way to make a few quid in the knockout stages.

I do a lot of public speaking. And many times during the last eight years, I have been asked to explain how on earth Greece managed to triumph at Euro 2004. After all, they were arguably the weakest team in the entire tournament and almost never had possession of the ball.

At the heart of their success was the canny German coach Otto Rehhagel and the fact that, six weeks after the tournament ended, Greece was due to play host to the Olympic Games.

As a nation, it's fair to say that the halcyon days of the Greeks date back almost 2000 years. Rehhagel's stroke of genius (aided by the proximity of the Games) was to use the images of Ancient Greece (Socrates, etc) on display around Athens at the time to remind his squad of the Greatness of Greece.

In sports psychology terms, what he did was provide the squad with a 'Cause' – a flag that everyone could rally underneath. The power of their cause was swiftly demonstrated as Rehhagel's side won the opening game against host nation Portugal, before enjoying further improbable wins over France, Czech Republic and Portugal (again), laying their bodies on the line in 'thou shalt not pass' defiance.

The right cause transforms a squad, injecting purpose, energy and a sense of collective mission. The wrong cause does precisely the opposite, leading everyone to question what they've signed up to. England’s rumoured cause at the very same tournament – 'let’s do it for Rio' (when Ferdinand had been controversially banned) – was not a cause I’d have chosen.

Devising a cause is a crucial aspect of my work in the Premier League. The most effective teams are playing for something more than themselves. Manchester United's breathtaking injury-time win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final of 1999 was powered by a cause – it would have been the 90th birthday of Sir Matt Busby.

In more recent times, Chelsea's backs-to-the-wall run to the Champions League title was driven by a sequence of causes, not least the fact that the squad knew it would be broken up during the summer and this was their last chance to triumph as one.

Picking a winner of Euro 2012 remains tricky. As readers of this blog will recall, I plumped for Germany several weeks before the tournament started and have no plans to amend that prediction as yet.

However, if you're looking for a squad with a cause to over-perform, look no further than Italy. Their World Cup victories of 1982 and 2006 were both rooted in causes; the rehabilitation of Paolo Rossi and a bribery scandal respectively.

Once again, on the eve of Euro 2012, Italian football was rocked by corruption allegations. History suggests that the national squad responds to such adversity by shutting out the world (not least their own media), adopting a trench warfare mentality and binding together.

Assuming coach Cesare Prandelli is alert to the perverse traditions of his own footballing countrymen and uses the opportunity shrewdly, an Italian triumph on Sunday week would come as little surprise.