Donnarumma was the only one who knew what was actually going on between Alba and Chiellini
In total it amounted to less than a minute, but it felt like a lifetime
There are moments in football that feel seminal as they're happening. It's rare - generally the significance of an event doesn't become clear until after the fact - but occasionally you get an incident during which you think 'Yeah, this seems significant'.
On Tuesday night, as Italy and Spain prepared to cap off their spectacular semi-final with a penalty shoot-out, we were the recipients of one such moment as we witnessed Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini playfully cajole his Spanish counterpart Jordi Alba.
As the pair stood in front of the group of officials, they cut polar opposite figures.
Alba, close to 20 centimetres shorter than Chiellini, looked pensive. His body was tight, his lips were pursed, and eyes darted as he processed the situation. There's nothing odd about this; most people in a high pressure situation respond as such.
Next to him, the Juventus centre-half stood, his body loosely swaying from side-to-side, with the calm of someone going up to the bar to order their first pint of the evening, rather than the captain of a nation expecting to reach the Euro 2020 final.
Focus is an essential part of penalty shoot-outs. You want to be locked in, blocking out all the distractions around you and thinking about one thing and one thing only: victory.
Alba did this, so far so good, at least until referee Felix Brych carried out the customary count toss, and Chiellini's body appeared to become possessed by the spirit of some kind of uber-competitive Barney the Dinosaur type figure.
As the coin fell to the ground, there was clearly a dispute, with Alba gesticulating passionately to one area of the pitch as if his life depended on it.
Chiellini's response was one of laughter and slight incredulity, as if to say 'Haha, look at you taking this so seriously. Adorable.'
The Italian then gave his counterpart a shove, light but enough to garner notice. Once again, though, Chiellini was beaming, leaving Alba standing there, trying to process the situation without overreacting and turning it into a 'thing'.
It's a feeling that anyone who was messed with by an arsehole in school will likely be familiar with.
The officials lapped it up. Alba continued to look bemused.
In fact, the only person who seemed to have any idea what was going on was Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who stood there with a curled lip as Chiellini wrapped Alba in a bear hug, looking at the officials with a wry smile that said 'I cannot believe you're letting him do this.'
Then came the pièce de résistance: that little faux punch to the jaw that - in a game situation - would've rendered the Spain captain incapacitated on the floor until the referee reached for his red card.
If Chiellini had been super aggressive to Alba, whispering little digs into his ear and standing chest-to-chest with him, it would have been more obvious, and likely less impactful.
Alba may have returned to his teammates more fired up, inspired by the backfiring attempts to psych him out.
But it was the weirdness of the Italian's behaviour that left viewers and Alba absolutely mystified as to what exactly he was doing and what exactly was running through his mind.
Get in there Giorgio! Couldn't happen to a bigger legend
Italy are off to the final! 🏆pic.twitter.com/uJ175UFdx5
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) July 6, 2021
It may not have had any impact on the shoot-out. It may just have been fun between two legends of the game, but at that moment it gave Alba something else to think about, rather than the game at hand. Right then, and you could see it in his eyes, his only thoughts were 'Why is he acting like this?'
Even now, his intentions are unclear, and therein lies the beauty of what he did. The effectiveness of mind games - as football has for years referred to acting like an arsehole - depends on the clarity of its purpose.
There was and remains an ambiguity to Chiellini's behaviour, an ambiguity aided by the fact that he has displayed a similar sense of ease and fun in earlier encounters during this tournament.
Whether he actually intended to mess with Alba, we may never know.
But as Alba stood nervously, Chiellini smiled. He's still smiling now. Job done.