“It was undoubtedly the most difficult moment for Italy football of the last 50 years,” said Giorgio Chiellini. Italy had drawn at home against Sweden and for the first time since 1958, the four-time winners had not qualified for the World Cup. The international careers of 2006 World Cup winners Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele de Rossi thus ended with a whimper; Buffon left the San Siro in tears that November night in 2017.
Two-and-a-half years later, Italy go into Euro 2020 as contenders, scoring 17 goals in their last five games and considering none after having qualified with three games to spare. So, what changed? Short answer: the tag team of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli. Friends for life, they had knocked in goals for Sampdoria, taking the club to the 1992 European Cup final at Wembley (also the venue for the Euro 2020 finals). Now head of delegation, Vialli is a beacon of positivity in the squad for how he is dealing with pancreatic cancer. And Mancini is the ringmaster who has taken Italy to a 27-game unbeaten run, three short of a record dating back to 1939 under two-time World Cup winner Vittorio Pozzo.
Neither Vialli nor Mancini had much success with Italy. Mancini because he had parted like Mario Balotelli soon after debuting, which led to falling out with then Italy coach Enzo Bearzot. It was the start of a fractious relationship with national team coaches that extended to Arrigo Sacchi in 1994. By the time the World Cup was hosted by the USA, Mancini had quit playing for Italy. When the World Cup had come home four years earlier, Vialli and Mancini slipped in the pecking order to Roberto Baggio and Salvatore Schillaci. The European Championship, which Italy won once in 1968, now offers the duo a second chance.
At this point, if the role of Maurizio Viscidi is not discussed, we would be getting ahead of the story. The website “Transfermarkt” lists Viscidi’s designation as the football federation’s youth scouting coordinator. But it was as technical director in 2010 that Viscidi, 59, started weaning Italy away from the door, defensive but effective football. With the help of Sacchi, they ensured the youth teams played more, created an under-15 team and from bottom up got national teams to play one way. There was emphasis on playing out from the back, using the width of the park, getting behind the backline and using space between the lines.
This system produced Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne; it helped Italy to two successive under-19 and under-17 European championship finals and two U-20 World Cup semi-finals between 2016 and 2020. Italy’s failure to qualify for Russia was not because they didn’t have the players but because the stodgy Gian Piero Ventura couldn’t get the best out of them.
Into this scenario, with streaks of gray adding gravitas to his good look, Mancini entered as Commissiaro Technico (head coach) in May 2018. He has since added color to what was a gray landscape. Even the squad announcement for this Euro had a sense of freshness to it, being a two-hour televised event with a lot of music. “We will get the fans on board only by having fun,” Mancini has said.
Mancini’s coaching influences were decidedly un-Italian, such as Sven Goran Eriksson and after tasting success at Inter Milan, he had moved to Manchester City, Galatasaray and Zenit St Petersburg. So, it fit that he got the team to do the decidedly un-Italian thing of pressing up the park. He also got them to pass more—they played 30 before Domenico Berardi scored against Poland.
Mancini also handed debuts to over 30 players, among them 23-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli and didn’t shirk from choosing Sassuolo’s Giacomo Raspadori, despite the forward being part of the under-21 team. Midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo even got an Italy call before he played a game for Roma. If Verratti’s knee holds up, he and Jorginho, who has seen a revival of fortunes under Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, would be the midfield axis. In Federico Chiesa — Mancini used to provide his father Enrico Chiesa with passes to score—Federico Bernardeschi, Insigne and Berardi, the coach has a plethora of options as wide players. The backline will be anchored by skipper Chiellini and in Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy have a worthy successor to Buffon. It seemed strikers would remain a problem area but Immobile and Andrea Belotti have scored in recent friendlies and the World Cup qualifiers.
At Inter Milan, Mancini ended a long trophy drought; under him City won the 2011 FA Cup, their first major trophy after the Abu Dhabi group’s takeover, and then the Premier League by silencing the other side of Manchester. It was reason enough for a book ‘The Man Who Restored Pride’ on him. “My idea was originally to target success in the 2022 World Cup, but now we can challenge for Euro 2020,” said Mancini, whose contract now runs till 2026.
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