F.It’s been five years since an Italian soccer player got the chance to kick the ball in a major tournament. Some still remember Simone Zaza, his idiosyncratic attempt at the penalty shoot-out in the quarter-finals of the EM 2016 between Germany and Italy.
Zaza, who hit the ball in the sky of Bordeaux at the time, became a laughing stock, Italy was eliminated. The “Russian Apocalypse” (Gazzetta dello Sport) followed, ie the fact that Italy did not qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, in this case the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Italy is back this Friday (9 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the European Football Championship, on ARD and MagentaTV). The “squadra azzurra” will face Turkey in the opening game of the EM 2020 in Rome, which has been postponed by one year due to the pandemic.
Star tenor Andrea Bocelli
For the return to the illustrious circle, the country offers what it has to offer: the big band of the Italian state police is to play at the opening, star tenor Andrea Bocelli will sing an aria from Turandot, the squadron of the Italian Air Force will be contrails in the Italian national colors left in the sky above the stadium. A little more than 14,000 spectators are expected in the stands due to the Corona restrictions.
At the Stadio Olimpico it was also the last time a major tournament match was played in Italy, 31 years ago at the 1990 World Cup. Most recently, many Italian tears have flowed. “Now let the others cry,” decreed the Gazzetta dello Sport. The “squadra azzurra”, which has reached its limits, has experienced an astonishing revival since the 2018 debacle. Especially with a good start to the European Championship, it threatens to turn into enthusiasm.
Not all Italians have their relatively unknown team on their radar yet. Some recreational footballers, for example in Rome, prefer to play on Friday rather than watch Italy-Turkey. But the professional world is full of praise for the team of coach Roberto Mancini and its attractive style of play. “Mancini has created a great group,” said ex-national coach Antonio Conte, “we can believe in them.”
Circle of favorites
The record of the Italian national team is so extraordinary that some even count the team among the favorites, the team is a candidate for the semi-finals, it is said. Mancini himself targeted the final at Wembley. Italy have not lost in 27 games, and the team even won the last eight games without conceding a single goal. Anyone who expects classic Italian result football from Mancini’s men is mistaken. The young team inspires with its aggressive drive.
After the missed qualification for the 2018 World Cup and the expulsion of coach Gian Piero Ventura, Roberto Mancini took over in May 2018. Mancini comes from Jesi near Ancona in the Marche, was active as a player himself at Sampdoria Genoa and Lazio Rome, he took part in the World Cup 1990 in his own country without being used once. As a coach, he led Inter Milan to win the championship again after almost 20 years, and Manchester City even won the national title again after 42 years. He later coached Galatasaray Istanbul and Zenith Saint Petersburg.
Working with the “squadra azzurra” seems like the greatest challenge for him so far. Mancini debuted more than 30 players. His mantra was: “The door is open to everyone.” The result is a convincing squad with defensive veterans like Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, the strikers Ciro Immobile (Lazio Rome, formerly Borussia Dortmund) and Lorenzo Insigne (SSC Napoli). However, the team is shaped by a group of rather unknown but efficient players such as Manuel Locatelli, Nicolò Barella or Domenico Berardi.
Mancini’s leadership style is casual but serious. The young players in particular should feel well understood by the 56-year-old. Mancini apparently has nothing left of the old stereotype of Italian safety football. “We’re an offensive team,” says the coach, “we have to attack”. Mancini’s team relies on possession, high pressing and quick recapture of the ball. In the last test match before the tournament, in the 4-0 win against the Czech Republic a week ago, this style, which had been absorbed in three years of work, was impressively seen in phases.
The Corriere della Sera raved about a “complete and mature team”. The core is the midfield, in which the injured playmaker Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) should only intervene during the tournament. The second director before the defense is 29-year-old Jorginho, who has just won the Champions League with Chelsea. Nicolò Barella (Inter Milan) made a name for himself as a tireless midfield engine last season.
In the European Championship qualification, Mancini’s team scored ten wins in ten games, Italy qualified for the tournament three game days before the end. The dark memories of recent times seem blown away. But the team’s weaknesses are obvious. Captain and defensive veteran Chiellini will soon be 37 years old and is prone to injury, in midfield and forward some players are lacking in physical sturdiness and size.
The biggest shortcoming for Italy is the inexperience of its actors. Five players from the likely starting line-up against Turkey have never played in a major tournament. What Italy has so far been denied under Mancini is a test of strength with one of the top teams in Europe. The Netherlands alone were defeated 1-0 in September. Nobody knows whether Mancini’s concept can work against top teams. The EM will show.