Euro 2020: Under Roberto Mancini an Italian renaissance
Italy’s 53-year wait for a European title had been subsumed by the rolling snowball of “it’s coming home” and “55 years of wait” conversations. True, Italy won two World Cups in between but the failure to qualify for the last one—a first since 1958—had severely dented notions of being a proud football nation. So, when Gianluigi Donnarumma saved Bukayo Saka’s weak penalty, the tears rolled.
Visibly emotional was Italy coach Roberto Mancini. Possibly awash with relief that Italy hadn’t been made to pay for his stop-start penalty routine being picked by Jordan Pickford, Jorginho wept. Donnarumma went from looking calm to wet-eyed. And when Federico Chiesa hugged his coach, who was also his father Enrico’s teammate, both were crying.
“That was the emotion (of)… seeing everything we have managed to create, all of the work we have put in over the last three years and specifically in the last 50 days,” said Mancini, the architect of this Italian renaissance after taking charge in May 2018. Italy have risen from the ashes of a failed World Cup qualification in 2017 to being undefeated in 34 successive games. That is one short of Brazil’s and Spain’s world record which Italy can equal on September 2 in a World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria.
For Mancini, the victory also slayed ghosts of 1992. Sampdoria had lost the chance to be Europe’s best to Barcelona; Mancini playing 118 minutes of the 0-1 defeat at Wembley. Gianluca Vialli, the head of this Italian delegation, played 100 minutes. It would be the last time the goal twins represented the same club. Vialli and Mancini are an example in this team of relationships going beyond the call of duty. Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne are a second and Leonardo Bonucci and skipper Giorgio Chiellini (they even do vacations together) a third. As club coaches in England, Vialli and Mancini have won domestic competitions at Wembley but it is one thing to do that and another to win on a European night.
The night though got dark for Italy soon after another energy-driven performance of the national anthem. Luke Shaw’s second minute half-volley after a slick move also involving Harry Kane and Kieran Trippier was the earliest a team had scored in a Euro final. Like Germany did to Portugal, Italy were dragged out of shape by wingbacks Trippier and Shaw. A Jorginho mispass and England stroking the ball around in Italy’s half summed up the first 30 minutes.
But there were indications of things to come in a strong Chiesa run in the 35th. Till Kalvin Phillips ended his evening clipping his ankle, Chiesa was tormenting England. In the 62nd minute, Pickford saved his shot from between a thicket of legs. Three minutes later, Chiesa’s delivery was headed out by Harry Maguire for a corner. From that, Italy equalised with a stab from player-of-the-match Bonucci. As England struggled to keep the ball (at one time they had 29% possession), Italy’s grip on the game got firmer, but a save each by Pickford and Donnarumma, adjudged player of the tournament, forced penalties for the first time in a final since 1976.
After the win, as Italians tried to savour the moment—described as unique to RAI TV by Bonucci as most of the stadium had emptied before the trophy was presented—Gareth Southgate was the epitome of grace and dignity. He consoled Saka, led England thanking fans for a run that hadn’t happened at a major since 1966. When Donnarumma saved Jadon Sancho’s penalty and when Marcus Rashford’s shootout effort hit the upright, Southgate’s middle-distance look betrayed nothing 25 years after his miss from the spot on the same ground had led to an England exit.
“I decided on the penalty-takers based on what we have done in training,” said Southgate after England’s 3(1)-4(1) loss, their seventh in nine penalty shootouts. This was the first time a team has won two tie-breakers in European Championship history.
In tournament football, especially during the pandemic which allows over half the team to be substituted in a game, squads win trophies. If Italy grew in the final, it was because Mancini’s substitutes—Bryan Cristante in central midfield in particular—influenced the game more. Federico Bernardeschi was another impact substitute in the way Sancho and Rashford, introduced for their penalty-taking prowess, were not.
The quality of Italy’s bench has been evident from when Alessandro Florenzi pulled up injured against Turkey. Manuel Locatelli filled up the hole left by Marco Verratti’s injury; Francesco Acerbi did that when Chiellini was hurt; it wasn’t till the quarter-final that Chiesa started in place of Domenico Berardi—crucial to Italy taking control of the final was the double substitution of Berrardi replacing Immobile and Cristante coming in for Nicolo Barella—and when Leonardo Spinazzola needed surgery, Emerson stepped into the breach despite playing all of 789 minutes this season with Chelsea.
“We were special in that we believed right from day one when we all joined up,” said Bonucci. “There was a different feeling in the air and it’s come to pass, and it’s incredible how, day after day, we never got tired of being together.”
Southgate will possibly need to find a way to get the wealth of attacking talent more involved, but the way he and Mancini have turned their teams around, the world will be watching both in Qatar 2022. Not a bad place to be from where England and Italy were after the last European Championship.