Italy’s national team streaking at Euros: Covid-beaten Italians cheer

Roberto Mancini has led Italy on a 28-game unbeaten streak, two off the national record.
Roberto Mancini has led Italy on a 28-game unbeaten streak, two off the national record. Wikipedia photo

They danced in the streets of Rome Friday night. They cheered in homes from Sicily to the Italian Alps. The first country that Covid-19 knocked into a mass grave had finally, after 16 months, turned doomsday into triumph. 

No, Covid isn’t dead in Italy. It’s down for the 10-count, though. We smell victory here. But what triggered a collective roar wasn’t the triumph over a global pandemic.

It was a soccer triumph over Turkey.

OK, on a global scale, Italy’s 3-0 win to open the European Championships won’t register much past the Italian-French border. But for a country that has lived for the last year and a half with Clovid’s first knockout punch, two lockdowns, constantly changing restrictions and a higher death per capita rate than even the U.S., Italy needed a reason to smile.

The victory woke up Italians to a new reality: Italy’s national soccer team, which has won four World Cups but humiliated the nation by missing the last one, is a world force again. I saw this coming. Not many others did. They were too busy trying to figure out whether they can walk outside or if they can eat inside. Soccer fans were monitoring Juventus’ fall from grace in Serie A and A.S. Roma going through another managerial change.

The streak

All this time, I watched Italy’s national team quietly barnstorm through Europe. Playing in empty stadiums where you could hear players curse over the TV and leather boots striking balls, Italy went on a historic run. Friday’s win was Italy’s 28th straight without a defeat. During that span, it has 24 wins and four ties, including a record 11 straight wins. It has outscored its opponents, 77-7, with 22 clean sheets. It hasn’t lost since Portugal beat it, 1-0, in the Nations League back on Sept. 10, 2018.

Saturday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport reads “LAUGH ITALY.”

Friday the nation woke to it like an orphan child seeing a Christmas tree spilling over with gifts. For the first time since the initial lockdown in March 2020, fans could enter an Italian stadium, Only 16,000 were allowed into Rome’s 70,000-seat Olympic Stadium but over the TV it sounded full.

The welcome back party began with a spectacular pre-game ceremony with fireworks and floating soccer balls representing all 24 countries in the tournament played across the continent. A.S. Roma god Francesco Totti presented the ball and opera star Andrea Bocelli sang “Nessun Dorma” (No One Sleeps), the tournament’s theme song. 

The evening was as Italian as a Fellini Film Festival inside the Colosseum.

Mancini’s influence

The architect of this turnaround is one Roberto Mancini. The 56-year-old manager from a small town in Campania has been an Italian legend ever since he won three straight Serie A titles managing Inter Milan from 2006-08. But he also won the 2012 Premier League with Manchester City and domestic cups with Lazio and Fiorentina in Italy and Galatasaray in Turkey. He is two unbeaten games from tying legendary Vittorio Pozzi, who went 30 in a row unbeaten from 1935-39 while also winning two straight World Cups and the 1936 Olympic gold medal.

Mancini stands along the sideline with his wavy, perfectly coiffed hair and designer Italian suits. He is so Italian he looks as if he hopped off a clothes ad — which he did in Saturday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport where he fills an entire page pitching Paul & Shark Yachting polo shirts.

When he took over the Italian team after the Titanic collapse of 2017, however, he became the anti-Italian coach. If Italian football style was fashion, it would’ve been overalls and workman boots. Heavy on tactics and defense, Italy always seemed too conservative for its history. The country has always been blessed with long-haired strikers with thunder in their legs and fire in their hearts.

Yet Italy until now was always built from the back with a great goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon and ageless defenders like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. 

Yet in the two-game playoff for the 2018 World Cup berth, it didn’t score against Sweden. With about 15 minutes left in a 0-0 tie in the second game, after losing the first, 1-0, then-coach Gian Piero Ventura told aging midfielder Daniele De Rossi to go in.

De Rossi went crazy, telling Ventura that they needed a goal scorer, not a midfielder. He told him to insert Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli’s lethal weapon. Insigne didn’t play and Italy didn’t score. The mere fact that Insigne didn’t even get off the bench indicates the old Italian mindset.

Italy starts over

Ventura was a train wreck and Italian football four years ago was even worse. Ventura was a 69-year-old journeyman who’d coached 18 clubs in 26 years and had been fired six times. But he had come off a strong run with Atalanta and came cheap for 1.2 million euros.

His boss with the Italian soccer federation (FIGC), Carlo Tavecchio, was a 74-year-old politician who’d been convicted five times on charges ranging from forgery to abuse of office. Oh, yes. He made jokes about African players “eating bananas.”

The FIGC cleaned house, hiring Mancini who was idle after leaving Zenit from the Russian Premier League the year before. Then everyone went to work. They reorganized the youth system which had a major disconnect with the national federation. Mancini organized training camps combining the senior team with the Under-21s and Under-20s.

Mancini wanted youth. No wonder. He made his pro debut at 16 in Serie A with Bologna. He debuted with the national team at 19. Italy’s starting lineup Friday averaged 28 years of age, two years younger than the one that flopped against Sweden.

The lineup included Gianluigi Donnarumma, the 22-year-old wunderkind goalkeeper who replaced Buffon; 26-year-old Domenico Berardi who has quietly become a star scorer for mid-table Sassuolo; and his club teammate, 23-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli.

Italy has not advanced past the group stage of a World Cup since they won it in Germany in 2006. Then-manager Marcello Lippi brought back basically the same lineup four years later and they left South Africa humiliated after tying New Zealand and Paraguay and losing to Slovakia, making its World Cup debut. 

Don’t let Mancini’s affable manner fool you. He has no room for sentiment.

“For example, most people would say (Juventus midfielder) Federico Chiesa was Juve’s best player this year and probably the best right winger in Italian football,” said Paddy Agnew, World Soccer magazine’s Rome correspondent for 30 years and covering these Euros in his Rome Dispatches blog on Twitter (@PaddyAgnew). “But Mancini looks at the last four or five games they’ve all played for him and said, ‘Right, Chiesa probably is the better player but at the moment, Berardi is in better form.’

“And Berardi proved it.”

New mental outlook

Besides player selection, Mancini changed the team mentality on two fronts: One, what’s everyone so serious about? Let’s go have fun. Rai, Italy’s state TV network, did a behind-the-scenes documentary showing Mancini playing the Basque racquet game, padel, using frying pans. It showed him singing with players.

After the Turkey victory, players said in interviews that Mancini’s message before kickoff was to just go out and have fun.

“He’s one of those guys who eats, drinks and lives by football,” Agnew said. “He understands everything. He takes everything that goes on in the training ground seriously. For him to say after all of that, two years later and going into their biggest match they’ve ever done, ‘Lads, go out and have a bit of fun’ it’s a a psychological master stroke. He takes the pressure as  much as possible off his squad.”

And they had a blast. Italy dominated 67 percent of possession and outshot Turkey, 9-2. After a scoreless first half when Italy had many opportunities, Berardi sent a wicked cross that Turkey’s Merih Demeral misdirected into his own goal with his chest. Ciro Immobile, Lazio’s uber scorer, kicked in a deflection 10 minutes later and Insigne curled a shot past a frozen goalkeeper to end the scoring.

Substituted players bounded to the bench, laughed and hugged with Mancini. After the game, fans danced outside Olympic Stadium, which hosted its first international tournament since the 1990 World Cup. 

Covid? What Covid? Isn’t that a midfielder for Wales?

“The pleasure for us is having given satisfaction to all the Italians,” Mancini said. “I wanted a game like this: To amuse those who were at the stadium and who saw the game from home. But nothing surprised me. A nice evening was waiting for me, and it was very beautiful.”

New attacking style

Secondly, Mancini’s stamp on the team’s strategy is now out for the world to see. If Italians weren’t paying much attention before, they’ll reschedule their vaccinations to watch future games.

This is a young, exciting, fun team that can do some serious damage in this tournament. They move constantly, creating constant matchup problems. This is not your father’s Italian team with great defense and counter attacks. It’s due to Mancini.

“The biggest difference between this team and any previous Italian national team is a change of mentality,” Agnew said. “Go out there and attack. Play an intense, attacking game for 90 minutes. He picked only players who are really good on the ball. As the Italians say, piedi buoni. 

“Above all, Mancini got into their heads that they believe they can play the Italian style of ticky tacky, one-touch football, keep it moving all the time (famous in Spain). Against Turkey they were absolutely amazing.”

Ciro Immobile has 123 goals in 177 games with Lazio. Wikipedia photo

Ticky tacky football refers to street soccer where players around the world develop baffling skills and which has been missing in Italy. That has changed. Insigne is a master ball handler and Immobile, while missing many chances for Lazio, also still has scored 123 goals in 177 games.

Italy’s chances

Can Italy win its first European Championship since 1968? Spain drubbed it, 4-0, in the 2012 final. Italy reached the quarterfinals in 2016 with Victor Conte before he left for Chelsea.

France, the defending World Cup champ, has the most talent. Belgium is ranked No. 1 in the world. One concern I have with Italy, ranked seventh, is it has built its eye-popping record mainly against mediocre competition. The average ranking of its 18 opponents is 75th. (Turkey is 29th.) Its World Cup qualifying opponents were Lithuanian, Bulgaria and Northern Ireland. Its European Championships qualifying group included Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, Finland and Liechtenstein. 

Italy has played only one team in the top 15 and No. 5 Portugal gave Italy its last loss before the two teams tied in the Nations League, 0-0. Italy’s next two opponents in the Europeans are 13th-ranked Switzerland Wednesday and No. 17 Wales Sunday. Both games, however, are in Rome before they move around Europe for the knockout stages.

“It couldn’t have gotten off to a better start,” Agnew said. “I think they’ll win the group. At that point then, the difficulty begins. I see one real possible, real problem and this is a bit of a physically lightweight team. Are they going to be strong enough against a team not as negative as Turkey were? If they come up against sides that aren’t frightened of them and come out and play against them like Belgium, like France, like Germany, like Portugal? All those teams will ask them questions that have never been asked before.”

I’m not a fan of any nation’s team. I remain a Romanista, an A.S. Roma fanatic in my red-and-yellow apartment high above the Tiber River. But this Italian team has fascinated me ever since it signed Mancini. It has also given me something to watch and read about during lockdowns. I can watch this possible powerhouse grow from the ashes of 2017 instead of scanning death curves and new Covid restrictions leaking from the Parliament.

From the rollicking scenes outside Olympic Stadium and photos of celebrating fans all over Italy, I’m apparently not alone.