The Azzurri as a national team are a source of immense pride for an entire nation and for the millions of Italians who live abroad. The football team unites. The common cause of football brings Italians together like nothing else. To wear that famous blue shirt is a dream of every child that kicks a ball around a piazza.
The greatest disappointments however for Italy’s supporters have been at the European Championships when that famous team has represented millions who ride every emotion – at almost every Euro in living memory the Azzurri have broken hearts and they will most likely do so over the coming weeks in France.
Italy have won only once in 1968 and sadly, for all of us supporters, in this tournament they are predicted to be once again gallant but the trophy will in all likelihood go elsewhere. The Azzurri are not expected to win the tournament, so in that sense no hearts will be broken because expectations are fairly low but that’s not what Azzurri supporters should settle for. The bar at Euro needs to be raised.
How can there be such a dichotomy between World Cups and Euros? At every World Cup Italy are mentioned as one of the teams to watch and every supporter certainly hopes that they do walk away with the ultimate prize as they did in 1982 and 2006. However, at every Euro the expectation seems to diminish. A good performance is regarded as acceptable and a near miss is almost celebrated as a win.
Italy superbly made the final in Kiev four years ago but then were simply steamrolled by Spain once there. After brilliantly defeating England in the quarters and then Germany in the semis, thanks to a majestic Mario Balotelli, the final was a great disappointment.
The 2008 and 2004 editions were forgettable for the Azzurri but it was very, very close in 2000. After reaching the final in Rotterdam, Italy’s name was almost engraved on the trophy but well into stoppage time France heartbreakingly equalised thanks to Sylvain Wiltord. In extra time a golden goal to David Trezeguet, a Juventus legend and fan favourite, gave France the trophy.
Italy in 2000 were coached by the legendary Dino Zoff and boasted the likes of Maldini, Costacurta, Nesta, Conte (the current mentor), Del Piero and Totti in their starting line-up. It should have been Italy’s tournament but, by the narrowest of margins, it wasn’t to be.
So what can Azzurri supporters expect from this time around? Of course Belgium, Sweden and Ireland are the first hurdles in the group stage. The globalisation of football has bridged the divide between many national teams and, in particular in Europe, the tiers that once existed are no longer apparent.
Belgium are almost expected to defeat Italy and it would not surprise if Sweden and/or Ireland did too. The Azzurri may not even go beyond the group stage and that may even be accepted as a reasonable result by some of the experts. But that’s not good enough and the supporters of Italy expect and demand better.
The squad has no real marquee player. There’s no Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Lewandowski or Kane. The current boss Antonio Conte already has a contract tucked under his arm for next season with Chelsea and, as such, he will not be accountable irrespective of the results. Conte cannot lose a position that he has already voluntarily relinquished.
Italy will rely on the Juventus veterans to guide them through. Starting with the indomitable Gigi Buffon in goal and ably supported in defence by Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. The midfield will be anchored by Daniel De Rossi, Antonio Candreva and Thiago Motta while in attack one or two of the new generation of Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Stephan El Shaarawy and Simone Zaza will need to step up. It is indeed their chance to really make a name for themselves on the world stage.
Failing to do so will render the 2016 team to the same annals of football history as their 1996, 2004 and 2008 counterparts. It will not be easy but the Azzurri need to be measured by the same yardstick as Germany, France, Spain, England and Portugal. If they are any hope of walking away with the trophy, these are the teams that they will eventually need to beat.
To fail at the first hurdle and exit the tournament at the group stage will condemn Italy to one of the bottom eight positions of the tournament. It surely cannot happen but stranger things have occurred in football.
If the unexpected occurs – remember Denmark in 1992 – and the Azzurri claim the title, then humble pie will be served and eaten everywhere. It would be one of the most extraordinary and courageous performances in recent memory, especially considering that some key players such as Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are out injured.
So most likely scenario of course is that neither will occur – Italy will hurdle out of the group stage but the trophy will elude them. This is the general consensus and so in that sense all expectations will have been met.
However, there is something inside me saying that this underrated Italy team may just be the one capable of springing the biggest surprise of all, with their motivation being the very fact that they have not been given any chance and written off by all and sundry before a ball has been kicked in anger.