LONDON – Roberto Mancini had promised a move when he was after the Italy the national team’s lowest point after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And he delivered.
While history will record him as the coach who led Italy to European Championship 2020 (on June 11, 2021, but that’s a different story), his contribution is far bigger. He turned a country’s attitude towards the national team – one of the few institutions that all Italians share from north to south, outside the Catholic Church, family and pasta – into something few thought it could be: something fun, something Brave, proactive, based on wanting the ball and taking risks. After great successes – four world championships and now two euros – this is the proverbial U-turn in a supertanker.
That would have been true regardless of the outcome of the spot kicks at Wembley. Penalty shootouts may not be the lottery the cliché claims, but they are also not football. You are a completely different competition. One that requires technical ability, courage, mental strength, and maybe a bit of a devil’s cramp, but it’s not football.
And Mancini’s judgment – and his counterpart Gareth Southgate, by the way – doesn’t and shouldn’t change depending on who wins a shootout.
But yeah, if you can get this far and take the cup home with you, it’s way sweeter. Especially when you can go into your opponent’s house and take it away from them after losing a goal, with your fans outnumbered five to one and without one of your best players in the tournament (OK, so Leonardo Spinazzola was there, hobbling around on his crutches, but he wasn’t playing).
Oh, and let’s remember who was out there most of the time in overtime. You had a center forward from the near relegation Turin (Andrea Belotti), two boys from tiny Sassuolo (Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi), Chelsea’s third-choice left-back (Emerson) and Juventus’ third winger (Federico Bernardeschi). In the meantime, until two minutes past full-time, such as the Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford watched from the sidelines … but that’s a different story and one that Gareth Southgate can explain in due course.
The penalty shoot-outs may have determined who took the trophy home, but the way the last 120 minutes have played out has determined who coached whom. And Mancini won that without a doubt.
England more conservative than usual, with an additional full-back, Kieran Trippier, turns the 4-2-3-1 of the previous excursions into a 3-4-2-1. England scored on just two minutes, playing straight into Southgate’s hands, making an already difficult task even more difficult for Mancini. It was good for England to sit low and counterattack with the Speedy. hold true Raheem Sterling. It also enabled England’s top three to effectively pressurize Italy’s midfield trio, the team’s creative engine. Take an inspired one Harry Kane and there was a real feeling that England could extend their lead, especially considering Italy looked ragged and had trouble finding space, save for the occasional one Lorenzo Insigne Free kick and one or the other run from the blistering Federico Chiesa.
Except that England didn’t take its advantage home. Instead, they kept pushing towards their own goal, perhaps in the hope that a counterattack would occur from the ether. Mancini’s possession game, while not blunting England’s de facto row of seven (five defenders plus two holding midfielders), at least took the sting out of the game and got it through until break.
“The early goal we gave up hit us hard,” said Mancini. “But we had the strength to get back into the game and I think we deserved to win.”
He pulled the trigger just before the hour mark. Ran out of Ciro Immobile (always fighting a losing battle) and Nicolo Barella, on came Berardi and Bryan Cristante. Insigne moved into a central position – call it a “false nine” if you will, when it was more like a “real ten” – and Chiesa and Berardi became the de facto strikers, stepping in from wide open spaces.
Insigne was beginning to find space where there wasn’t before. Jordan Pickford had to make two tough saves in quick succession, the first from close range from Insigne, the second from the bubbling Chiesa. Then came the goal with Leonardo Bonucci showed up to tuck it home after Pickford Cristante’s header deflected off the post. Scrap metal? Maybe, but it had come. A few minutes later, a precise ball hit Berardi over the top, whose volley was not quite sweet enough – otherwise it would have been a goal by the tournament candidate.
The 90 minutes ended with a reminder that despite all the smiles and positive attitudes, there was still a little evil lurking in Giorgio Chiellini’s heart: When Bukayo Saka twirled him on the sidelines, using an old-school horse collar to stop the counter. Saka is young enough to be Chielini’s son; Perhaps that’s why the Italian captain looked down at him and said, “Sorry boy, this hurts me more than you.”
But Chiellini has even more to offer: on the first extension of extra time, he was just phenomenal at putting out a counterattack from Raheem Sterling, his 36-year-old body was a model of efficiency, if not full speed. Chiellini celebrated as Joel Embiid could after rejecting a shot. Sterling smiled and nodded as he ran back up the field – even he appreciated the tackle. Chiellini would make another similar stop in the second half of extra time at Sterling, England’s last standing man, who was part experience and part witchcraft.
Then came the punishments with their cruel changes in swing. Belotti sees his salvation (Advantage, England); then Rashford dribbles out of play (Two); Gianluigi Donnarumma Saving from Jadon Sancho (advantage Italy); Jorginho watching his shot hit the post, ricochet off Pickford, then snuggled into the goalkeeper’s arms (double); and then Donnarumma’s oversized frame wiping out Saka for victory.
Mancini’s men played some of the best football matches at the European Championships. Not only that, with the exception of stretches of the Spain His team outplayed the opponent in every game. The final told its own story: Italy had 62% possession, overtook their opponents 20 to six and kept England off with a single shot – Luke Shaw’s goal.
He did it by turning a handbrake to turn away from the history of Italian football. He did it without having the most talented squad at the EM. He did it with x’s and o’s, but also with a lot of psychology and charisma. And his Italian team have now been unbeaten in 34 games, a small deficit on Spain’s record.
“What made us special? Our beliefs and the relationships we have built with each other,” said Bonucci. “We’ve been together for 50 days now and we still haven’t had enough. Even when we were off and visiting our families, we still met. My wife pointed this out and asked” me why the players were all together, even when the families were there. We have never been bored. Usually, when you’ve been away for so long, you want to go home. But we never felt that way. We wanted to go on to be together until the end. Until now.”
Now it’s over. Now you can go home. And you can take the cup with you.
Bonucci was asked if he really shouted “It’s coming to Rome” into the cameras, a slap on the ubiquitous “Football’s coming home” song preferred by the English.
“Absolutely, yes,” he exclaimed. “We’ve heard that since Wednesday night when they hit Denmark to reach the finals. I’m sorry for her, but it’s going somewhere else. He gets on a big plane and flies to Rome. We believed in it, we deserved it and now it’s right for us to celebrate. “