The image of a crying Gianluigi Buffon filled the pages of nearly every newspaper in Italy.
On 13 November 2017, the country shaped like a football boot could not score a goal against Sweden to qualify for the World Cup.
It was more than a national tragedy – it was labelled as the apocalypse. On the cover of Italy’s famous pink paper, Gazzetta dello Sport, the headline simply read: “The end.”
Italians were inconsolable, embarrassed and frankly not too surprised. When the names of the squad were announced in San Siro on that fateful evening, Italians booed when it came to coach Giampiero Ventura.
There was no rhythm to Italy’s game, only a bunch of individuals doing all they could to avoid the shame of not qualifying. The public hated the team and their football association, but they particularly hated the coach.
As another paper, La Repubblica, noted, “the apocalypse bore a blue hue” – the colour of the Azzurri – for Italy were unable to find one “miserable goal” against “a poor Sweden, embarrassing on a technical level yet proud in its resistance”.
Questions were asked about how such a proud footballing nation could fall so far. Who could resuscitate this blue beast? Carlo Ancelotti was the man everyone wanted. Roberto Mancini was who they got.
Mancini was a fine footballer and a successful coach who had won in different countries and created strong teams, yet he was a divisive figure.
As a footballer, his attitude was questioned relentlessly. He fought with everyone and against everything, and when he scored for Italy in 1988, his celebrations conveyed anger more than joy. He had to be held back by his team-mates from gesturing offensively at those in the press box who ever dared question him.
He was hardly a bad choice considering his successful coaching history, but was he going to make Italy dream again? The way Ancelotti would perhaps have managed?
When Gazzetta dello Sport reported Mancini’s thoughts on the potential winner of the 2018 World Cup before underlining his plans for the Italian side, one solitary reader comment lay underneath the piece: “We’re not going to the European Championship with you either.”
Fast forward three years and Italy are not only in the Euros, but finalists.
They have been arguably the best team in the tournament, and Italian broadcasters, newspapers, pundits and ex-footballers are falling over themselves to unearth new superlatives to describe the magic of Mancini, the beauty of this team and the remarkable effect this has all had on unifying the country.
Giving 35 players their debuts and focusing his efforts on playing fluid football with an emphasis on highlighting the attacking flair within his squad, Mancini chose to entertain. The 1988 Italian team that he was part of, and that was led by Azeglio Vicini, was similarly entertaining and also believed in youthful exuberance, perhaps inspiring Mancini to build something similar.
They act in accordance with the words of the Italian national anthem, the one Giorgio Chiellini and co bellow like their lives depend on it: “Brothers of Italy, let one flag, one hope gather us all. The hour has struck for us to unite.”
Brotherhood is the very theme of this Italian side. At a time of social and economic despair, the country needed football to bring back the joy in these hard times, especially after the pandemic.
Among all those debutants were kids who were given a chance, some of whom had yet to even make their debuts for their own clubs. But by growing together and facing challenges as a unit, they forged bonds, memories and stories that have enthralled a nation and allowed us to forget our troubles – for a short time at least.
When Italy overcame Spain in the semi-finals, Lorenzo Insigne ran to get Leonardo Spinazzola’s jersey, holding it close to him as every member of the Italian group joined him to sing Spina’s name and dedicate their victory to him. His tears as he was carried away against Belgium after a troubling injury were felt deeply by the nation and every player, who spent their return journey consoling Spina, a player who has been relentlessly plagued by injuries in his stop-start career.
Matteo Pessina speaks of the barbecues after the games, the oven the Italian chef bought over to make his special pizza, and the memories this group is creating. But Italy might just be a little more in love with those in the technical area.
There you find Mancini and Gianluca Vialli, brothers of Italian technique and scorers of the most delectable of goals at Sampdoria in the 1990s. They, alongside so many of their Blucerchiati team-mates, preside over this bunch and their bond has only grown stronger, despite the many battles each one has faced in his life – none more challenging than the cancer Vialli fought for so long.
Their warm embrace after Federico Chiesa scored against Austria had many Italians shedding a tear. That one moment of humanity reminded the country of just how much they have faced in recent times and how many souls have been lost to a pandemic of which their country was the epicentre. But they have come through it, as hopefully we all will.
Italy are officially in love, and for a brief moment in time the country is enraptured by its most beloved sport. Articles upon articles have been dedicated to this team, from noting the youngsters’ plights to becoming professionals to crediting their mothers who sacrificed so much to allow them to pursue their careers.
Mancini himself left home at 13 to pursue football. “He called home 10 times a day,” his mum explained to Corriere della Sera. Did he need anything? “No mom, I just need to hear your voice, to know how you are.”
Spina’s mum recalled how her son suffered an injury at 14 and just wanted to come home. “Think about it,” his mum whispered. Luckily, Spina listened.
Everything from their Armani suits to their superstitions have been well documented. Francesco Acerbi, who himself battled cancer twice, has to get on the bus on matchdays first. Gianluigi Donnarumma has to be the last.
As for Vialli – on their way to the match against Turkey, the bus left without him, only for the squad to realise a few moments later. The bus stopped, allowing him to catch up and finally get on. Since then, they simply have to repeat the process before every game. It’s now a ritual.
From the mini-series Il Sogno Azzurro, which curiously followed the creation of this Italian side, to the hundreds of other programmes dedicated to the national team, it’s safe to say the boos have been replaced by cries of joy.
Italy versus Spain in the semi-final secured nearly 20 million viewers, making it the 35th most-viewed event ever in Italy. According to the Italian FA, the 50 most-viewed TV programmes are all football matches and 46 involved the Azzurri. Does that start to paint a picture of just what calcio – football – means to Italy?
According to one Italian fan at Wembley, football is everything. “It’s God, family and calcio.” The Holy trinity.