Roberto Mancini's Italian renaissance

Sports Thursday 08/July/2021 18:46 PM
By: DW
Roberto Mancini's Italian renaissance
Italy's strength and sense of cohesion permeates through the entire squad and staff

Berlin: The man at the center of the celebrations after Italy's semifinal penalty shootout win over Spain wasn't even on the pitch.

Leonardo Spinazzola was watching on television back home in Italy after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the previous round against Belgium. The 28-year-old Roma left-back, one of the standout players of Euro 2020, will be out for at least six months, but his teammates in the Squadra Azzurra haven't forgotten him.

On the plane back from the quarterfinal in Munich, they serenaded him with chants of "Ole, ole, ole! Spina! Spina!" And after the victory at Wembley on Tuesday night, striker Lorenzo Insigne donned Spinazzola's number four shirt as the Italy players gathered for a photograph and sang about the upcoming "Spinale" – the "finale" on Sunday against England.

Italian renaissance under Roberto Mancini

After the footballing nadir of November 2017, when a playoff defeat to Sweden saw Italy fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, the Azzurri did not enter Euro 2020 with high expectations.

But head coach Roberto Mancini, who took charge six months after that nightmare playoff in Milan, has since presided over an Italian renaissance of which the scholars and artists of 15th century Florence would have been proud.

"Forza Azzurri!" ("come on, the blues!") is the famous cry from Italian fans. The word "forza," however, also means "strength," and Mancini has proven himself to be a master of drawing bucket loads of it from the depths of despair.

It was on show after the wins over Belgium and Spain as the Italian players rallied around the stricken Spinazzola, but it permeates the squad, the coaching staff and indeed the entire country, the European nation which suffered first, and arguably most, from the coronavirus.

For Mancini himself, it's a road to redemption after his own international career failed to progress how he would have liked. Despite earning legendary status with his 168 goals in 566 games for Serie A side Sampdoria from 1982 to 1997, Mancini only managed four goals in 36 appearances for his country.

He was famously an unused substitute at Italia '90, and acrimoniously pulled out of Italy's squad for the World Cup in the United States four years later, having been demoted to at least third in the striking pecking order behind Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola.

Giving everyone a chance

It spoke volumes that, with qualification from Group A already secured by the closing stages of the game against Wales in Rome, Mancini used his four remaining substitutions to give Bryan Cristante, Giacomo Raspadori, Gaetano Castrovilli and even reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu a taste of tournament football.

He also called up Francesco Acerbi, the 33-year-old former AC Milan ultra and notorious party animal whose career and life were turned upside down by testicular cancer in 2014. "I used to drink anything," Acerbi has said. "I seriously considered quitting football. Cancer saved my life."

Now, under Mancini, the Lazio defender has become a key part of the Italian defense, a trustworthy understudy to veteran center-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. He played all 120 minutes against Austria in the last-16, even setting up Matteo Pessina's winning goal with neat hold-up play in the box.

Mancini's man-management, as well as his tactical shift away from classic Italian defensive catenaccio to a more possession and wing-based style — arguably more classically "Spanish" than the combative Spain side which impressed in the semifinal — has restored Italy's faith in its national team.

Gianluca Vialli, Mancini's 'goal twin'

Now, at Wembley on Sunday, Mancini has a chance to banish memories of one of the most painful defeats of his playing career: Sampdoria's extra-time loss to Barcelona in the 1992 European Cup final at the same stadium.

Mancini's strike partner that night will once again be by his side: Gianluca Vialli, the "capo delegazione," Italy's "delegation chief" who has overcome much more serious setbacks than lost football matches in recent years.

In 2017, the former Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea striker, who scored 16 goals in 59 appearances for Italy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"I considered it a phase of my life that had to be lived with courage and from which to learn something," Vialli said in November 2018 after undergoing eight months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy.

"It was hard to have to tell others, to tell my family; you never want to hurt the people who love you," he said. "It gives you a sense of shame, as if it's your fault. I would wear a sweater under my shirt so others wouldn't notice [the weight loss], so that I would still be the same Vialli they knew."

The cancer returned in 2019 before Vialli was eventually given the all-clear in April 2020. Mancini was one of the few close friends he confided in.

Whether disappointment on the pitch with Sampdoria in 1992 or life-threatening illness, the "gemelli del gol," the "goal twins," as they were known in their playing days, stick together and draw strength from despair.

Leonardo Spinazzola knows that, and so does Franceso Acerbi. And on Sunday, a reborn nation emerging from the darkness of the pandemic will hope that that strength will carry them all the way. Forza, Azzurri, forza.