To paraphrase The Beatles, Roberto Mancini took a sad song and made it super. Four years ago, darkness had descended on Italian football. The Azzurri had failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals. Only once it had happened before, in 1958. In 1930, at the inaugural World Cup, Italy had declined the invitation to participate. Under Giampiero Ventura, Italy had fallen into a deep, dark dungeon.
Ventura had refused to resign after the World Cup playoff defeat against Sweden. But his position had become untenable and he was duly sacked. For the next six months, Italy faced a managerial void before Mancini took over. On the face of it, the appointment didn’t inspire much confidence at the time.
As a manager, Mancini had won back-to-back Serie A titles with Inter Milan. Then, in 2011-12, he guided Manchester City to their first league title in 44 years. After that, however, his managerial career had drifted somewhat. At the time of his Italian call-up, he was managing Zenit St Petersburg.
Mancini’s football career was a case of the glass half full. He won the Scudetto – Serie A title – with Sampdoria. But he fell short of realising his dream of winning the European Cup. Sampdoria lost to Barcelona in the 1991-92 European Cup final. He never had the chance to make his presence felt at the World Cup finals. In 1990, when Italy hosted the tournament, the then national team manager Azeglio Vicini didn’t give him game time. Four years later, he fell out with Arrigo Sacchi. As with Vicini, Roberto Baggio was the preferred choice for Sacchi as well and Mancini lost out in a direct rivalry. He decided to hang up his international boots.
The opportunity to manage Italy has given Mancini the fillip to achieve something which he failed to do as a player. “I have a dream. I want to win as a coach the thing that I did not win as a footballer; a World Cup,” Mancini told Gazzetta dello Sport in January 2018, as quoted by The Guardian. His Italy have been progressing fast.
A draw with Poland followed by a defeat to Portugal in the Nations League in September 2018 hadn’t been an auspicious start. But Italy haven’t lost a game since. They came to the Euro 2020 with an all-win record in the qualifiers and their unbeaten run has now stretched to 29 games. In the European qualifiers, they scored 37 goals in 10 games and in the first two matches of the Euros proper, they have netted six. Mancini has liberated the Azzurri. Gone are the days of door-bolt.
The departures of the veterans at the right time helped Mancini. He inherited a side that didn’t have the excess baggage of the past. Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini had announced their international retirement following the San Siro heartbreak against Sweden. The latter would eventually change his mind, and Mancini was prompt to bring him back to the national team fold. The manager knew that Chiellini’s skill-set and his experience would be priceless in big tournaments. Chiellini is 36 years old. His long-standing partner at the heart of the defence, Leonardo Bonucci, is 34. They are model centre-halves in terms of their anticipation, positioning, reading of the game and leadership. The experienced duo aside, youth has formed the bedrock of Mancini’s Italy.
The manager was game enough to give youth a chance, from Gianluigi Donnarumma to Alessandro Bastoni. He went for a more attacking 4-3-3 formation that would become 3-2-4-1 in possession, with left-back Leonardo Spinazzola pushing forward. Italy would have been stronger at the Euros with Marco Verratti playing. But an injury has sidelined the midfielder. In his absence, however, Manuel Locatelli has stood up to be counted. His second goal against Switzerland had a Marco Tardelli throwback, of the 1982 World Cup final vintage.
That’s stepping into very big shoes, for Tardelli is regarded as an all time great. But Locatelli, from Serie A club Sassuolo, has shown promise. The way he has started the Euros, the 23-year-old is expected to have many suitors during the summer transfer window. With Locatelli, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella feeding the forwards and the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne hitting goal-scoring form, Italy are on an upward climb.
Mancini is trying to play down the hype, but nobody seems to be falling for it. After the win against Switzerland, Corriere dello Sport ran a banner headline: “La pazza gioia (crazy joy)”. Writing for Gazzetta dello Sport, Premier League title-winning former Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri mentioned, as put out by the Euros official app: “This Italy side is perfect and Locatelli is a jewel. Good possession, pressing, runs. Six goals scored and none conceded, Mancini has built an extraordinary orchestra.”
Mancini’s beautiful football has captured the imagination of the Italians. A footballing giant that went into a slumber, is roaring again.