‘Our team has played brilliantly so far, and since Roberto Mancini has taken over the reins as manager I’ve felt a peculiar energy that’s difficult to explain,’ Beppe Bergomi, part of Italy’s 1982 World Cup winning squad, said.
This isn’t somebody normal or even some average fan but a player, a defender, who was a key part of Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning squad which says something. Because this is an Italian side that has a paucity of established trophy-hogging stars with only Emerson Palmieri and Jorginho medal winners. Both of those came in the Champions League at the end of the 2020/21 season with Chelsea with neither Giorgio Chiellini nor Leonardo Bonucci ever winning one.
And yet, this Italy team have been scary to watch at times which is saying quite something when you take into the fact that three years ago, the exact opposite could be said. Back then, Italy were nothing more than a carved out husk of the team they could be with them a far cry from a proper, coherent footballing entity. Somehow, Antonio Conte’s well-run team of stars had collapsed into a pile of nothingness despite the way the Italian had run the team.
But to be fair to Giampiero Ventura, Conte was, and still is, a world-class manager who managed to suck every ounce of potential and talent from the team before he stepped down. He took over after a horrendous 2014 World Cup where Italy exited at the group stages – in a group with England, Costa Rica and Uruguay – for the second consecutive time after their performance at the 2010 World Cup.
Yet despite that, this was a team that did finish runners-up at Euro 2012, even if they were beaten soundly by Spain in the final, which is what Conte saw. The future Chelsea and Inter Milan boss saw exactly that and worked his magic which was something Ventura couldn’t handle or manage. Yet, with the veteran boss changing everything for Italy, going right back to his roots and refusing to use a system that clearly worked for the Azzurri hurt the team in the end.
His refusal and hatred for offensive players, showcased by the Insigne snub, didn’t make things any easier with Daniele de Rossi’s outburst only slightly warranted. But not qualifying for a World Cup was unheard of especially for a side that has won the whole caboodle four times over the years. It forced talks, meetings, more talks and more meetings before Italy eventually realised that what they really needed was a complete overhaul.
It took them three long months to decide and figure out a plan but when you don’t qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, you need to make a proper decision. Three years later and watching Giorgio Chiellini laugh, hug Jordi Alba with an ear-to-ear grin ahead of a penalty shoot-out and you could say that they made the right decision. It’s a symbol of Roberto Mancini’s era and time with Italy that the 36-year-old, who retired after the 2018 fiasco was somehow coaxed back into the fold and now looks re-born.
Maybe it’s because Chiellini knows that this is one of his last tournaments, with the 2022 World Cup a meagre possibility at best, or maybe it’s because at 36 he has finally realised what football really means. Either way, it matters not because that’s been the core of Roberto Mancini’s time in Italy with him bringing back the spirit and a sense of brotherhood that was lost many a year ago.
Whatever he has done it worked but just doing that off the field doesn’t matter unless what you’re doing on the field works and Italy are playing like a team possessed by the ghost of brilliance. Even at their very worst, Roberto Mancini’s Italy have been a class apart at Euro 2020 with a delightful combination of experience and youthful exuberance shining its way through. But more than that, the Azzurri look like a well-oiled machine, a champion team playing at the peak of their powers and physical capacities.
It’s a side that already looks capable of winning not just one tournament but forging their own myths and songs. They haven’t lost in 33 games. Not one or two but 33 games and they’ve won 27 of those. They’ve scored 86 goals and conceded just ten with Sasa Kalajdzic’s header breaking a 19-hour clean sheet run. 1,168 minutes with Gigi Donnarumma playing a large bulk of that, thus breaking the previous record set by Dino Zoff, between 1972 and 74, by 25 minutes. And yet the biggest concern was that Italy wasn’t tested.
Then in two back-to-back knockout games, Belgium and Spain pushed Roberto Mancini and his men to the very brink of their powers and yet that failed to threaten them. Spain came ever so close and utterly dominated the Azzurri, so much so that them losing seemed to be the wrong outcome. But that grittiness, that resolute nature to hold on even when the odds were against them were a throwback to the Italy of the past. A cause that was helped by having two masters of the defensive dark-arts in their back-line.
Both Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are more than comfortable in these situations and against Spain, they seemed to relish them as witnessed by the goofy grin on Chiellini's face. Those two seem like they’ve been playing forever, and they have 229 caps between them plus countless appearances for a catalogue of Italian sides, but the real gem is that midfield. They might just be the best in the land as a trio even if Spain completely outplayed and had them on wires.
But that’s the thing; if there was one international team capable of doing just that at Euro 2020, it was the Furia Roja.
No other team is as capable of making a side chase their own shadows for 90 plus minutes and yet Italy somehow walked out as winners on the night. A penalty shootout was needed to help decide that but they endured, they battled and they survived. They ceded possession to the Spaniards, backed their men and had a collective strength that hasn't been seen in an Italian side since 2006. Not even Antonio Conte's side showcased that and it's a testament to Mancini's work.
More than that, they threatened Spain. A high, very aggressive press threatened the one side that you would think were more than capable of holding their own against that. It caused a few jitters and had an Unai Simon thumping more passes downfield than he had ever done in his life. Because that’s what Mancini has turned Italy into; the modern version of everything they wanted with a way of playing that has even the neutrals in awe and a little terrified.
Because there’s just something about this Italy and it’s not just the fact that Mancini has modernized them but more that he’s done it while keeping their core beliefs intact. Combine that with a rare blend of collective will and collective responsibility, that has only been seen in international teams and resemble club sides or Germany. That alone is as rare as sights get for international sides; playing like a club side, caring like a club side.
And yet, it's also a team that no manager, no fan and maybe even no player would relish playing against and it’s the final being held at Wembley, no matter what ol' Roberto says, matters not. But he’s right when he says “You can’t play a game of football nervous. You have to play with the right pressure, really trying to go out and have fun. That’s the only way you win a final.” Because whether they like it or not, Italy are back and thus with that comes the pressure of being a team that is back.
A team that the world expects nothing but glorious football and pure brilliance from. It’s better than being a team that newspapers call the apocalypse, a team that fans, critics and neutrals alike all dreaded to watch and far better than being the scorn of a nation. And yet, playing exceptional football means absolutely nothing if you don’t have the trophies to go along with it. But with a nation united again and in love with their team, Italy may have already won their trophy.