Columnists, Sports

From World Cup qualification failure, new generation shows light at end of Italian National team tunnel

The centuries between the 1400s and 1700s defined the Renaissance era, which saw the revival of art and literature, with its roots firmly planted in Italy.

The Italian National Soccer team unveiled its collection of Puma jerseys called the “Italy Renaissance Kit” on Saturday, taking inspiration from the Renaissance archives to celebrate Italy’s new rising talent. The new jersey includes a Renaissance-inspired graphic as “a celebration of Italy’s culture past, present and future,” according to Puma’s website. 

Italy secured its place in the Euro 2020 finals with a 2-0 win over Greece in Group J, and it truly does feel like a new generation of talent is being ushered in.

However, things have not been easy for the team. The 2016 Euros saw Italy as massive underdogs going into every match due to its lack of quality, with Graziano Pellè and Éder its best striking options, both a far fall from the likes of Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi. The brilliance of Antonio Conte allowed the team to get to the quarterfinals, which was deemed a miraculous tournament performance.

But in 2018, the unthinkable happened. Italy failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1958. Having been four-time World Cup winners — and almost synonymous with the competition — it seemed almost unfathomable that such a thing would be possible. As a result, that year Italy found itself with its lowest FIFA ranking ever.

Newly appointed manager Gian Piero Ventura’s questionable tactics and team selection meant that the group’s stage results were poor and the squad had to go through the playoffs against Sweden to qualify.

Having lost the first leg, 1-0, Italy was tasked with overcoming this deficit. Such was the disarray and incompetence of the manager that he attempted to bring on defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi when in desperate need of a goal. De Rossi, passionate at heart, defied his manager and ordered him to bring on attacker Lorenzo Insigne instead. Italy eventually lost and the manager was sacked following his refusal to step down.

The subsequent appointment of Roberto Mancini proved to be one of the building blocks. Mancini brought a host of European experience, having managed Manchester City and Serie A with Inter Milan.

He immediately ditched the old-fashioned 4-2-4 formation that his predecessor used and switched to a 4-3-3 formation, which allowed him to get the best out of his players. With a central three of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolò Barella, Italy now has a midfield that is good enough to control and change games at will.

Jorginho, in his famed regista role, helps to keep the team kicking as well as gives a defensive screen to the back four, something that was unachievable under the previous regime. Veratti has been deployed as a box-to-box midfielder who helps out in defense with his relentless tackling. He also provides a very creative outlet going forward. Barella is allowed to venture further forward than his counterparts and looks to get into the box for goals. 

While the midfield is going to be key, Mancini has bred a crop of youngsters that can carry the torch for the Azzurri for years to come. Gianluigi Donnarumma has nearly 150 appearances at club level despite being only 20 years old. Similarly, other prospects such as Nicolò Zaniolo and Federico Chiesa are already key players at the club level and will grow into the national squad.

Admittedly, Italy did have a fairly straightforward group to qualify for the Euros. The team has done it in style, having won all of its eight games with 25 goals scored and only three conceded.

For the first time since 2016, there is a sense of hope for the team. There is a sense within Italy that this team can go on to achieve more than its recent history suggests it can. There is a clear identity and with these younger players, a burgeoning Renaissance is underway.

It will be interesting to see how the squad performs against some of the European heavyweights this summer. For now, it is brilliant to have Italy back — not as an underdog, but as a competitive outfit.

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