As usual, I am approaching this major tournament, my twelfth as an Azzurri fan, with a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement because I know that anything can happen – Greece won it in 2004, right? Could this be the year I finally see my favourite national team win a Euro? But dread because deep down I know from bitter experience that it’s a real lottery and a miserable ending is far more likely than a happy one…
Our form in recent friendlies has been abysmal, leading some to prematurely celebrate coach Antonio Conte’s post-tournament departure to Chelsea. I can see where people are coming from on this, but I also think they are betraying a lack of understanding of how Italy operates and always have done. We haven’t been any good in friendlies since around about the time of the Punic Wars.
Italy are a nation that is fundamentally overconfident, and indolent, and we only clean up our act for the big games when we absolutely have to. That’s why everyone loves us!
Having said that, you’ll hear no quarrel from me with the notion that the quality of Italian football is not what it used to be. When you look at the current squad, there are no Tottis, no Baggios, no Maldinis, Donadonis, Rossis, or Cannavros… Catenaccio (padlock) defence is a thing of the past and the man who is in my mind the best big game striker we have, Mario Balotelli, the hero of Euro 2012, is unlikely to be picked due to racism and silly prejudice.
Our hopes now largely rest with Napoli’s second best striker, Lorenzo Insigne, (although Conte doesn’t seem to be playing him as much as he should), a 36 year old Andrea Pirlo, and Gigi Buffon who at least still has it.
Call me biased, and I am, but Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi and Stephan El Sharaawy should be top picks and will serve their country well should they be called upon. But outside that, the back three we employed against Germany in our most recent friendly – Acerbi, Darmian and Bonucci – hardly inspires a whole lot of confidence. I like Riccardo Montolivo more than a lot of people do but he’s not in the best form for club or country and neither is Thiago Motta – once again an aging Pirlo will be asked to carry our creative fortunes.
But even with our ropey looking squad, getting out of the group shouldn’t be that hard! Especially with only two third placed teams not getting into the round of 16 at this tournament… (what’s with that, by the way? Why bother with a group stage if almost everyone gets out of it? SMH)
Out of the three teams we face in Group E, Belgium are undoubtedly the strongest. They have themselves a golden generation at the moment, with a couple of their players very well known to fans of the Italian game – Dries Mertens at Napoli and Radja Nianggolan at the best club in the world. They will be tough to beat first up, especially given Italy’s famed slow starts to tournaments, but the good news is it gets easier from there…
We always, always, always want to beat Sweden, after what they did to us at this tournament 12 years ago. They played Denmark in their last game, with a win for either team seeing them qualify along with Italy out of Group C. But instead of trying for the win, the two Scandinavian neighbours played for the draw that saw them both through and Italy out… As the two sides passed the ball merrily between themselves in the last ten minutes, making no attempt to score, Swedish fans held up a banner that said “CIAO ITALIA”. Revenge will always be on the minds of Azzurri fans when we play them from now until eternity. Plus it’s always nice to wipe the smile of Zlatan’s face as an added bonus…
But as we all know, big football tournaments have nothing to do with how good you are and everything to do with luck and omens. And the best omen of all is the fact that Italy is playing the Republic of Ireland in our third group stage game.
At USA 94 Ireland beat us in the group stage, but we still went all the way to the final. Four years ago, at Euro 2012, we returned the favour by beating them in the group stage… and then we went all the way to the final!
The moral of the story is this – we will go all the way to the final whatever happens versus Ireland.
So cheer up Azzurri fans!
The trick will be to actually win when we get there this time…
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/