Four years ago, when they failed to qualify for the 2018 Football World Cup for the first time in 60 years, Italian football was staring in the dark. The 2006 World Cup winners losing their play-off against Sweden to miss the flight to Russia for the biggest football event shocked not just the Italian fans, but everyone around the world. However, massive comebacks have happened on the football field: France missed the 1994 World Cup, before they won the 1998 edition, the Netherlands missed the 1986 World Cup before winning the 1988 Euro, and Italy themselves missing the 1992 Euro and then playing the 1994 World Cup final.
So, a resurgence was not out of reach. There were plenty of examples in the past to draw inspiration from.
All that the Azzurri, four-time world champions, needed was someone to guide them. That someone was ex-Italy footballer Roberto Mancini who did more than just guide them. He changed the way Italians played the game and has taken them to an unbeaten streak of 33 games that stretches back to 2018. They need two more wins to equal the record streaks of Spain of the late noughties and early 2010s, and Brazil of the 1990s.
Former Dutch star Johan Cruyff had once described Italy’s defensive style of play quite aptly in his words.
“The Italians can’t beat you, but you can certainly lose to them,” he had said while explaining how the rock-solid Italian defence could wear everyone out.
But Mancini has changed that and taken Italy beyond Catenaccio, which means door-bolt and refers to Italy’s habit of downing shutters and stalling the opposition.
He has employed attack as a policy.
While the defence manned by Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Francesco Acerbi remains unbreachable (conceded just three goals), their midfield comprising Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolò Barella are dictating the game and creating chances for forwards Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. Italy have scored 12 goals.
Unsurprisingly, Italy have become only the second side in Euro history, after the 2000 champions France to have at least five players score more than one goal during the tournament.
“The desire to rebuild, to relive a tournament as a protagonist is immense,” defender Giorgio Chiellini had said before the start of the Euro.
“The defeat in Milan against Sweden [in the 2018 World Cup qualifying play-off] stuck with us. We can never forget it. But we managed to turn disappointment into enthusiasm and the desire to do well,” he had added.
Former England and Liverpool player Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports that Italy have a winning mentality, the reason behind their victory.
Analysing Italy’s semi-final against Spain, he said, “Spain gave a great performance, no doubt, but I always just felt Italy would win. I felt Spain’s goalkeeper may just let them down whereas Gianluigi Donnarumma is a huge plus point for Italy along with the two centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
“Spain were unlucky, there is no doubt about that, but it goes back to my point about teams getting through tough moments, tough games and coming through adversity. Italy have done that a couple of times so there is a real winning mentality with the unbeaten run that they are on.”