I’ve never been a fan of Italian football. It’s never pleasing to the eye. Hard tackles and a ruthless defence are the hallmarks of great Italian sides. And when they scored, it was mainly through swift counters. It didn’t make for good viewing, but it fetched results. Four World Cups and two Euro titles show that the strategy works.
But we saw a different Italy at Euro 2020, a side that’s a total contrast to teams past. A side that not only played possession football but also actively sought to score more goals. And that, to me, is the way to play the beautiful game, which is why I love Brazil and the Netherlands.
Roberto Mancini’s side has been a huge surprise. Over the years, I’ve seen Italy grind out victories when all seem lost. I’ve watched them upend talented teams with ease with stunning counter punches (Remember the Mario Balotelli strikes against Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals). One-goal wins are a norm, and a goal deficit doesn’t faze them. Even draws are okay since penalty shootouts are not a worry (Ask Spain and England).
Great Italian defenders
When I think of great Italian sides, it’s always the names of defenders and goalkeepers that spring to mind. There’s Cesare and his son Paulo Maldini, Claudio Gentile, Fabio Cannavaro, Franco Baresi, Antonio Nesta…the list of defenders goes on. So also goalies like Dino Zoff, Walter Zenga, Gigi Buffon and others. This is not to say that I don’t remember a Paulo Rossi or a Roberto Baggio, but it’s always the Italian defenders that caught my attention.
That legacy lives on in captain Giorgio Chellini and Leonardo Bonucci, the central defenders from Juventus. Together they must be 70 years and past their prime, but the duo showed the skill and stamina to play two straight games (semifinals and final) that went into extra time.
Their best came in the semifinals, where Spain ran much of the game. Italians had hardly a look in, barring a spot of brilliance from Frederico Chiesa. But Chellini and Bonucci kept Italy alive for 120 minutes before goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saved them in the shootout.
It wasn’t catenaccio (the chain) defence of the fabled Italian teams, but it was good enough to see off their rivals. And on occasions, the Azzurris showed the game management that won major trophies. Although I marvelled at their skills and tactics, it was the newfound aggression that amazed me. It was almost like seeing another team in action.
The opener against Turkey was a huge surprise. Three goals and more attempts at the goal signalled a change in Italian football philosophy. Football pundits were quick to credit Mancini for the transformation; they attributed it to his coaching stint at Manchester City.
Whatever may be the trigger, it was beautiful football. And it was such a joy to watch Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, and Chiesa running circles around rival defences. It was flowing football. So good that I was prepared to watch them graft when the going got tough.
The Wembley victory over England had all the ingredients that make Italy formidable opponents in major tournaments. A goal down in the second minute, it was a treat to watch them regain the initiative and equalise. Penalties, we know, is a lottery. Given England’s record, my money was on Italy. The new Italy. Mancini’s Italy.