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Rising Nations: The Awakening of Italy

Italy are one of the traditional forces in international football. After a trying decade for the four time world champions, they are back and rejuvenated.

The classification of Italy as a ‘rising nation’ is probably a bit disconcerting; after all, this is a country that has appeared in eighteen World Cups, made the final six times and lifted the trophy on four occasions. Italy and excellence on the world stage are as inextricably intertwined as those earphones in your pocket. But once in a while, there comes a disaster of apocalyptic proportions; it happened in 1958, and happened again in 2018. Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup.

’58 may not have been a big blow. Italy had been world champions twice by then, without having the aura of a true global force yet. The debacle of 2018, however, was far more gut-wrenching.

The whole world watched as Italy failed to break down a stubborn Sweden side in the second leg of their qualification playoff in late 2017. The image of Gianluigi Buffon, being led off the pitch in tears was probably the defining picture of the qualifiers that year.

They say the night is darkest just before the dawn. The night was dark for the Azzurri in 2010, exiting the group stage of the World Cup four years after winning it. It was darker still when history repeated itself in 2014. Light flickered when they made it to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016. But it was snuffed out too on that fateful day a year later.

Fast-forward to 2020, though, and in the strangest of years worldwide, the first cracks of an Italian dawn seem to be appearing over the horizon.

But how did this happen? What has changed since 2017?

Behind the scenes

After the loss to Sweden, Italy manager, Gian Piero Ventura was asked about his future. Many questioned the results Italy had earned during his time at the helm. Ventura responded by saying he was not prepared to resign, even stating, “My record is one of the best of the last 40 years. I lost only 2 games in 2 years.” 

In truth, he had been in charge for just over a year and had lost thrice. This included the loss to Sweden, and a 3-0 hammering at the hands of Spain in the same qualifying campaign. Other poor results such as the home draw with North Macedonia did not help. Ultimately, Ventura was sacked just 2 days later.

Five days after that, the man responsible for the termination of Ventura’s employment, Carlo Tavecchio, stepped down from his post as president of the Italian FA (FIGC). An extremely controversial character, Tavecchio had been banned by UEFA in 2014 for racist remarks and in 2015 after an audio tape of him making anti-Semitic and homophobic comments was leaked.

Even prior to taking over as the head of the FIGC, Tavecchio had been convicted for various crimes, including tax evasion, falsification of reports, abuse of office and forgery. In the eyes of many, this was a man who should never have been in such a position. 

A new Administration

In October 2019, a new president was finally elected, after a stalemate in the election post-Tavecchio’s resignation. Former president of Castel di Sangro and of Lega Pro, Italian football’s third division, Gabriele Gravina, was the new president. Along with new head coach Roberto Mancini, appointed five months earlier, Gravina was given the responsibility of rebuilding the national team, This was on top of improving the quality and attraction of Serie A.

Gravina impressed many with his ideas for the national team. He was of the opinion that ‘Club Italia’ was to be treated as any other club side.

A president, a competent board of directors as well as the right backroom staff in the dugout, were all needed. He further went on to emphasise the importance of dividing responsibilities at the boardroom level into two categories; organisational and technical. His ambitions were made clearer when he stated his preference to bring in Giuseppe Marotta, former Juventus CEO. As it happened, Marotta ended up joining Inter Milan barely a month after Gravina’s appointment.

Before being announced as president, Gravina oversaw a redesign of the Federal Technical Centre of Coverciano. Italy’s training base in the foothills of Florence was famed for its proficiency in producing top-quality footballing minds. As part of his vision to “lift the cloud” following the elimination, the changes were merely cosmetic, but they do seem to have helped.

Five areas of the training centre were refurbished. This inluded the instalment of panels along the walls displaying Italian national team kits over the years. The premise here was to impress upon the newer players what representing the national team meant.

Gravina’s willingness to crack on with the job at hand proved enough to get the country on his side.

The New Coach

Roberto Mancini had been in the frame to replace Antonio Conte as Italy manager since the latter stepped down in 2016. Finally appointed in May 2018 after a short stint at Zenit St Petersburg, the former Manchester City manager set about the unenviable task of lifting the gloom that had descended around the team.

Upon taking the reins, Mancini sought to make sure he had a reliable young core to depend upon. Ventura put his faith in veterans such as Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele de Rossi.

Mancini went the other way. The new crop of Italian youngsters is brimming with talent. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella and Federico Chiesa have all become key players. 

Another feature of Mancini’s management has been his consistency in team and tactics selection. His predecessor could rarely settle on a regular playing eleven or system. However Mancini has deviated just once in twenty four games from his preferred 4-3-3 shape. He knows precisely what personnel changes he needs to make and when. 

The result? Italy have won all ten of their matches during qualification for Euro 2020. Storming into next summer’s tournament in this manner, the wind is bellowing behind their sails.

The Azzurri have also finished top of their group in the UEFA Nations League, qualifying for the semi-finals with the big guns. France, Belgium and Spain.

Domestic Quality

While Mancini has been an upgrade on Ventura. However it is worth noting that the talent he is selecting from is perhaps superior to that of his predecessor.

Clubs such as Atalanta, Sassuolo, Fiorentina and Lazio have now emerged as genuine threats to the traditional big boys of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Not only has it forced these three clubs to step up their game, but it has helped the national team to no end.

In fact, in Mancini’s squad for the recent international break, only three players were based outside of Italy. Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Emerson. Only Verratti can claim to be an automatic starter in the side. Therefore ten players are likely to be Serie A-based. This has not been a familiar sight to Italian fans for a while now. 

The Midfield Gladiators

Italy possess a wealth of talent across all positions in their squad. Very few teams can assert that they have at least two top-quality players in every position on the pitch, not in the least, in midfield.

Italy has a storied history of midfielders; the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Roberto Baggio, Carlo Ancelotti, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianfranco Zola, Antonio Conte, Daniele de Rossi…..the list goes on. The teams of this decade have not lived up to those unbelievably high standards. However the current crop of midfielders looks as promising as anyone in the world.

In Marco Verratti, Mancini possesses a truly world-class talent. Despite playing in a league where his team often swat opponents aside, countless excellent performances in the Champions League to show his quality. A metronomic passer, calm under pressure with an exceptional footballing brain. He is possibly the most vital cog required for the implementation of Italy’s new possession-based style of play. Now 28 years of age, he also has the experience needed to emerge as a leader of this side.

Of course, if Verratti were to be unavailable, Mancini would have the luxury of falling back on Sandro Tonali. Dark flowing locks, a graduate of the Brescia youth academy and now playing in the red and black of AC Milan, it’s easy to mistake him for Andrea Pirlo.

Eight years Verratti’s junior, Tonali is still relatively fresh, but his style of play makes him a mouth-watering prospect. Tonali manages to combine the on-ball elegance of Pirlo with the off-ball tenacity of Gennaro Gattuso. The ingredients are there for him to explode on the international stage.

Part two of three in the middle of the park for Italy features Nicolo Barella. Breaking through at Cagliari in the 2016/17 Serie A season, Barella sealed a move to Inter Milan in 2019.

He had impressed manager Antonio Conte during his time as Italy boss, showing promise in the youth setup. Barella is the complete midfielder. A terrific engine, supremely effective presence in both penalty areas, and his reading of the game in attacking, defensive and transition phases make him a nightmare to play against. Expect him to be a feature in Italy’s setup for a long time to come. 

The Face of the New Italy

At the back, Italy are protected by Gianluigi Donnarumma. Already an experienced member of a rejuvenated AC Milan, and part of the national team setup for four years now. Still just 21, there is a Buffon-esque aura about the youngster. Astonishing saves, assured distribution and disciplined organization of his defence makes him a shoo-in into the side. He could well go down as one of the greatest to ever don the national team’s jersey.

Add to the mix the attacking talents of the incredibly consistent Ciro Immobile, the mercurial Federico Chiesa, the composure of players such as Lorenzo Pellegrini, Alessandro Bastoni and Manuel Locatelli, and mavericks like Domenico Berardi and Niccolo Zaniolo. Both the present and future of Italian football look in very safe hands. 

What’s next for Italy?

Ultimately, the improvements made since 2017 would likely be for nought if they were to suffer another disappointment in qualifying for the 2022 edition of the World Cup.

If a similar situation were to arise, there would be no guarantee of the players not overthinking the occasion. It would be back to square one once again.

Their comprehensive performance thus far suggests that that is unlikely to be the case, but one can never tell. There has not been such positivity around an Italian team for nearly a decade now. However with that positivity comes higher expectations, and fulfilment of those expectations will not be easy.

Tangible progress has been made. Continuing on this trajectory can only lead to bigger and better things. These players have reminded the world that Italy is a world superpower again.

They have reminded the world that the most dangerous beast is a wounded one. Reminded themselves that wearing the shirt means they are soldiers. That the pride of the country is at stake. 

There is nothing that matters more.

Fratelli d’Italia, L’Italia s’è desta. 

Brothers of Italy, Italy has awakened.   

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