Italy have their first Italian-born manager in more than 80 years, and they’ve won the European Championships for the first time since 1938. You’d be forgiven for thinking that was a good thing. But as Italy manager Antonio Conte said after receiving his medal, “I’m not happy yet.”
Under former manager Roberto Mancini, Italy participated in Euro 2012 under the tagline: Italy ‘everybody in’. The Azzurri, as they are known, played some of their best football ever, and won the trophy with a 2-0 win over England in the final. The squad was a mix of newbies and experienced players that Mancini pulled together after the 2014 World Cup.
LONDON — Roberto Mancini promised change when he took charge of the Italian national team after it failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And he delivered.
While he will be remembered as the coach who led Italy to the 2020 European Championship (on June 11, 2021, but that’s another story), his contribution is far more significant. He changed the country’s attitude towards its national team – one of the few institutions common to all Italians, from north to south, apart from the Catholic Church, family and pasta – into something few thought of: something fun, daring, active and based on the desire to get the ball and take risks with it. When you’ve had success on a grand scale – four world championships and now two European championships – it’s the proverbial turnaround of the supertanker.
This applies regardless of the outcome of the penalty shootout at Wembley. The penalty shootout may not be the draw the cliché refers to, but it’s not football either. It’s a different kind of competition. It takes technical skill, courage, mental strength and maybe a little craziness, but it’s not football.
Mancini’s judgement – and that of his counterpart Gareth Southgate, for that matter – does not change and should not change depending on who wins the penalties.
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But yes, getting that far and winning the trophy is much more satisfying. Especially when you can walk in on your opponent and win, while losing as the game goes on, with a five-to-one fanbase and without one of your best players in the tournament (okay, Leonardo Spinazzola was there, limping on crutches, but he didn’t play).
Oh, and let’s not forget who was on the field during most of the overtime. This included a centre-forward from almost relegated Torino (Andrea Belotti), two guys from low-ranked Sassuolo (Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi), a third left-back from Chelsea (Emerson) and a third winger from Juventus (Federico Bernardeschi). Meanwhile, Jaydon Sancho and Marcus Rashford watched from the sidelines until two minutes into the game….. but that’s another story that Gareth Southgate can explain in due course.
The penalty shootout determined who would win the trophy, but the way the previous 120 minutes had been played determined who played against whom. And Mancini won that match by a wide margin.
England set up more conservatively than usual, with extra defender Kieran Trippier changing the 4-2-3-1 of previous games to a 3-4-2-1. The fact that England scored after only two minutes worked in Southgate’s favour and made Mancini’s already difficult task even harder. This allowed England to set up deep and counter with the speedy Raheem Sterling. This allowed England’s front three to effectively pressure Italy’s midfield, the team’s creative engine. With Harry Kane inspiring, it looked like England could extend their lead, especially as Italy looked shabby and struggled to find space apart from a couple of free-kicks from Lorenzo Insigne and the dazzling Federico Chiesa.
Only England did not realize their advantage. Instead, they continued to move towards their own goal, perhaps hoping that a counterattack would come out of nowhere. Mancini failed to break through England’s true seven-man line (five defenders plus two supporting midfielders), but at least the game was kept in check and brought to halftime.
The early goal we gave up came hard, Mancini said. But we had the strength to come back in the game and I think we deserved the win.
He pulled the trigger just before the hour. The departure of Ciro Immobile (who is still losing the battle) and Nicolo Barella, Berardi and Brian Cristante came in. Insigne was moved to the centre – call it a false nine if you like, although it’s more of a true ten – and Chiesa and Berardi became the de facto strikers, scoring from wide areas.
Insigne began to find space where there was none before. Jordan Pickford had to make two difficult saves in the process, the first on a shot from close range by Insigne and the second on a spirited Chiesa. A goal followed when Leonardo Bonucci popped up and fired at goal after Pickford had pushed a Cristante header against the post. Scrappy? Maybe, but it’s happened before. A few minutes later, a precise ball landed in the top corner to Berardi, whose shot was not quite right – otherwise he could have claimed the title of best goal of the tournament.
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He did so by putting the history of Italian football on the handbrake. He did it without having the most talented team at the Euro. He did it with X’s and O’s, psychology and charisma. And his Italian national team is now unbeaten in 34 games, one less than Spain’s record.
What made us special? Our faith and the relationship we’ve built with each other, Bonucci said. We’ve been together for 50 days and we still have no desire for each other. Even when we had time off and could see our families, we still talked to each other. My wife pointed this out and asked me why the players were all together, even though their families were present. We were never bored. When you’ve been away for so long, you usually want to go home. But we never felt it. We wanted to go on, be together until the end. So far.
It’s over now. Now they can go home. And they can take the bowl with them.
Bonucci was asked if he actually shouted It’s coming to Rome at the camera, referring to the ubiquitous Football’s coming home song, one of England’s favourite songs.
Absolutely, yes, he exclaimed. We’ve been hearing that since Wednesday night, when they beat Denmark to reach the final. Too bad for them, but it happens elsewhere too. It’s getting on a big plane and going to Rome. We believed in it, we deserved it, and now it’s time to celebrate.
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