Italy soccer team qualifies for Euros as a nervous, embarrassed, rabid fan base finally exhales

Italy celebrates its 0-0 tie with Ukraine Monday which qualified it for next summer's European Championships.
Italy celebrates its 0-0 tie with Ukraine Monday which qualified it for next summer’s European Championships.

Before I retired to Rome nearly 10 years ago, I thought my impressions of Italy’s soccer team would be permanently imprinted in my brain: A beaming Francesco Totti, my hero at AS Roma, holding up the World Cup trophy in Berlin. A crazed Gennaro Gatusso running around the field in his underwear hugging everyone he sees. Italian fans deliriously screaming in Olympiastadion, refusing to leave the scene where Italy climbed atop the soccer world for the fourth time, second most in the world.

I know. I was there.

I covered that 2006 World Cup for the Denver Post, and it remains the greatest sports event I ever covered. It wasn’t that I’d previously lived in Rome 16 months and Italy won. I didn’t care who won. I rooted for the story. And Italy’s was grand. It overcame a massive referee scandal in its domestic league which penalized powerhouse Juventus to Serie B and stripped its title. Italy won a semifinal against host Germany which seemed pre-ordained to win before fans dying to reclaim national pride for the first time since the Nazi nightmare.

When I retired to Rome in 2014, I figured living in a soccer mecca would be filled with more reverie, parties in Circus Maximus that last until dawn, parades through Centro Storico, players’ names spoken in the same breath with Caesar Augustus and Federico Fellini.

Italy’s fall

What happened instead was a Fall of the Italian Empire. Italy’s soccer team collapsed like a ‘65 Fiat. It went to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and didn’t get out of the group stage. Then it didn’t qualify for the next two World Cups, something akin to Miss Italy not qualifying for Miss World.

It tied Northern Ireland. It lost to North Macedonia. Sweden shut it out twice for a spot in the 2018 World Cup. I moved to Italy and its soccer team watched on TV just like San Marino, Togo and Tonga. 

Italy’s European title in 2021 seemed like a one off, a fluke, like they drew to an insight straight.

This year, Italy was on the verge of going down for a third time. Defending its European title? Ha! It was in serious danger of not even qualifying. How does Italy not qualify for a European Championships that has 24 countries? What, Italy has dropped below Albania?

But alas, the sun did come up on the bel paese Tuesday. Calm has returned. Heads will not roll like the old Catholic Church executing crooks in Piazza del Popolo. Italy tied Ukraine Monday night, 0-0, in the last group stage game to qualify by the last thread of their Versace suits.

It finished the group stage in second place with four wins, two ties and two losses, the same as Ukraine. Italy advanced based on head to head as it won their first matchup, 2-1, Sept. 12 in Milan. 

“We are Italy, reigning champions,” midfielder Davide Frattesi told reporters after the game,  “Let’s try to repeat what was something fantastic.”

2023 adversity

Ex-Italy manager Roberto Mancini in 2021. Wikipedia photo

Considering what Italy overcame, maybe beating France, Spain and host Germany won’t be that tough. After all, Italy bounced back from the shocking August resignation of manager Roberto Mancini, the architect of a world-record 37-game unbeaten streak and the European title. 

And nothing builds a team’s morale more than a gambling scandal.  Three of the most promising young players on the national team were caught in a sting of illegal gaming sites and two were suspended. Rumors. Accusations. Investigations. Tears. Sure, this also happened before Italy won the 2006 World Cup but a scandal is an odd formula to count on for success.

The biggest setback was the loss of Mancini. His foundation began to unravel Jan. 6 when Gianluca Vialli, who grew up playing with Mancini in Lombardy and with whom they led Sampdoria to its only Serie A title in 1991, died of pancreatic cancer. 

In March Italy lost to England, 2-1, in the first European qualifier and in June lost to Spain, 2-1, in the semifinal of the Nations League, a secondary tournament that provides a flimsy safety net for nations to make the Euros through a rigid back door of a 12-team playoff.

Losing to England and Spain isn’t as embarrassing as missing two straight World Cups. But not even qualifying to defend your European title sure is.

Corporate shakeup

On Aug. 4, Italy’s soccer federation, the FIGC, announced a corporate shakeup. Mancini was given oversight of the Under-21 and Under-20 squads, but Mancini’s assistant coach, Attilo Lombardi, left to take over the Under-20 team when Carmine Nunziata jumped to the Under-21. Antonio Gagliardi, on Mancini’s staff when they won Euros, returned to FIGC headquarters.

Suddenly, on Aug. 13, Mancini upped and quit. Two weeks later he took Saudi Arabia’s national team job for a cool €25 million a year, taking Lombardi and Nunziata with him. The Italian media carved up Mancini like a wheel of parmesan, saying he sold out for petro dollars. But Mancini pointed the finger at FIGC chief Gabriele Gravina for his decision to walk. 

“Have you ever seen the head of the federation change a manager’s coaching staff? I’m the one who should be making changes,” he told La Repubblica. “The truth is that we’ve been on a different wavelength for a while. But why make changes to my staff? At that point he should have sacked me … if he wanted to keep me, he could have but he didn’t want to.”

Luciano Spalletti. Wikiquote photo

Galvina had to work fast for a replacement. More Euro qualifiers were in a month and he needed a seasoned hand. He couldn’t afford the same mistake as in 2016 when the federation hired Gian Piero Ventura, an aging journeyman who never won over Italy’s locker room and whom players openly mocked during games.

Tending his luxurious 50-acre farm in Tuscany was one Luciano Spalletti, a proven domestic winner in Russia and Italy and fresh off a runaway Serie A title with Napoli, its first title since 1990 when Diego Maradona owned the city.

Spalletti had quit the Napoli pressure cooker to take a break but the opportunity to coach his nation’s team was too alluring. It didn’t start well. They tied at North Macedonia, 1-1, on Sept. 9, putting Italy at 2-1-1.

Betting scandal

Spalletti righted the ship, beating Ukraine and Malta. Then came the betting scandal. On Oct. 17, promising 22-year-old midfielder Nicolo Fagioli, a star for powerhouse Juventus, was suspended seven months. That night Italy went to London and got thrashed by England, 3-1

Six days later, Sandro Tonali, a 23-year-old midfielder who already had 15 caps with the national team, was suspended 10 months. Tonali admitted he bet on soccer games.

In the meantime, it was reported that striker Nicolo Zanioli, coming back from surgeries on both knees but with 16 caps and two goals, would soon be under investigation. 

A souvenir stand outside Stadio Olimpico Friday night.

North Macedonia game

Under this cloud of scandal, with more players thrown into the rumor mill, Italy found itself in third place with only two games left. Only two teams qualify from each group. Into Rome Friday night came fourth-place North Macedonia, which knocked Italy from the 2022 World Cup qualifying with a 1-0 win in Palermo and hadn’t lost to Italy in their last three meetings.

Three points behind Ukraine, which only had Italy left on its schedule, Italy didn’t have to beat North Macedonia. If it lost and beat Ukraine three days later, it would qualify on head to head, regardless. But if it beat North Macedonia, all Italy had to do was tie Ukraine to advance.

I decided to go to the game. It was my first trip to Stadio Olimpico since before the Covid shutdown. The crowd of more than 56,000 was in a frothing, bloodthirsty mood from the start. They booed every North Macedonian player introduced. They booed North Macedonia’s national anthem. Who boos North Macedonia’s national anthem?

Stadio Olimpico was as majestic as always.

Alexander the Great came from Macedonia.

Italy dominated possession from the very beginning and it looked like it would make North Macedonia look like Malta, jumping to a 3-0 halftime lead behind two goals from Federico Chiesa, who has emerged as the country’s biggest star. 

But in the 52nd minute, North Macedonia’s Jani Atanasov scored on a close header and in the 74th scored again on a deflection. Suddenly, with 16 minutes left, Italy was looking at one of the biggest embarrassments in a decade full of them, blowing a 3-0 lead to North Macedonia, at home, in an important continental qualifier.

A North Macedonia fan hoping her country wouldn’t lose to Italy for the first time in four tries.

However, reason returned. Seven minutes later, Giacomo Raspadori scored on a breakaway to ice it and AS Roma’s own Stephan El Shaarawy scored for good measure.

“It’s not true that this team doesn’t have a star like Sinner,” Spalletti said in reference to Jannik Sinner, the Italian tennis player who made the ATP Finals Sunday. “We also have ours. It’s Federico.”

Ukraine game

As it turns out, the decisive victory was needed. Ukraine entered Monday night as Europe’s obviously sentimental favorite. All of Europe wants Ukraine to beat Russia in their war but beating Italy in soccer would be good enough. Due to the war, Ukraine has played all its games outside the country. Monday they played in Leverkusen, in Germany, where there are 1 million Italian expats.

It provided a neutral crowd which was treated to one of the most entertaining scoreless ties in recent memory. Ukraine was on constant attack, forcing Antonio Donnarumma into a diving save in the first seven minutes. 

A young Italy fan at Stadio Olimpico.

Spalletti didn’t play for a tie. Italy was in attack mode. Anatoliy Trubin, Ukraine’s brilliant 22-year-old goalkeeper, stopped Frattesi on a one-on-one breakaway in the 29th minute and Chiesa shot one over the crossbar.

Italy began dominating but appeared vulnerable for counter attacks. Donnarumma escaped goathood when he whiffed on a cross but stopped  Mudryk at point blank range in the 65th minute. Donnarumma smothered a loose ball a minute later.

The closest call after that was Bryan Cristante, another Roma player, possibly getting away with a trip of Mudryk in the penalty area in stoppage time. But nothing was called and Italy survived.

I don’t see consecutive titles when the Euros begin in June. Italy is a little young. Monday they started five players under 25. They need another dangerous striker. North Macedonia and Ukraine exposed holes in the defense. Two losses to England don’t bode well against Europe’s alpha class.

But Spalletti has breathed new life into the team, and its recent form will take pressure off defending their title.  This past year? It’s almost over. As Spalletti said while Italians celebrated in the German night, just as they did 17 years ago, “Now comes the fun part.”