As Antonio Mateu Lahoz called time on the match, boo’s reverberated around the San Siro. For the first time since 1958, Italy would not be going to a World Cup. An insipid display across two legs saw the Azzurri succumb to a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Sweden.
The loss instigated calls for change. The Giampiero Ventura era was a mitigated failure; this was an opportunity for Italy to start afresh, usher in the new era, the Roberto Mancini era.
And it is so far, so average. Draws with the Netherlands and Poland, and defeats to France and Portugal, have done little to improve the mood after the World Cup failure. However, the Azzurri are a work in progress.
Mancini has been praised for giving an opportunity to the youngsters: Nico Zaniolo was previously called up despite his lack of playing time at Roma, Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi have been given more of a key role, and players like Nicolo Barella are getting an opportunity.
So, Mancini really went against the grain, and caught many off-guard, when he decided to call up 31-year-old, Toronto FC forward, Sebastian Giovinco: a bizarre decision that is easily the most peculiar of his tenure. What does he think this will achieve? Is he making a point to out-of-form attackers Andrea Belotti and Mario Balotelli, or does he genuinely think he could be the answers to Italy’s problems.
In the three-years since his previous call-up, the Atomic Ant has been shining in the MLS, with 67 goal in 112 appearances. He has won the Newcomer of the Year Award, the Most Valuable Player Award, the Golden Boot. He has won the domestic treble (the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian Championship). He has featured in the MLS Best XI on numerous occasions. He has turned out for the MLS All-Star side on numerous occasions. He has done it all. But, to put a pin in his balloon, at a considerably lower standard.
People will argue he has done well, that his form has earned him a call up, and that the MLS is more competitive than people assume: though many will disagree. Possibly Mancini is using these games as a platform for Giovinco to show he can cut it at this level, but he hardly showed it when he was playing for Juventus, and in his previous stint for Italy, when he was in his prime, so what makes Mancini think he will be able to now. Not many players at the top of their game leave a team like Juve, at the age of 27, to go and play in the MLS.
Giovinco is now 31 years old. By the time Euro 2020 rolls around, he will be 33, and presumably, still plying his trade in the MLS. I am not saying that players over 30 should be omitted, or are too old to be good at football, I am merely pointing out that in this particular circumstance the player in question left an elite side, when he should have been in his prime, to join an MLS side, due to his inconsistent career. A successful stint in North America may have only warped people’s opinion of him and people may have forgotten the reasons for the move in the first place.
I only hope Mancini is making a point to his out-of-form players that no one is guaranteed a place in the squad: and rightly so. But his decision to call up Giovinco goes against everything he has been doing during his tenure so far. Surely it would stand them in better stead to give an opportunity to yet another young player, who has their whole international future ahead of them, instead of someone who is beginning his descent towards retirement.
The World Cup failure was meant to be an opportunity for someone to come along and breath a new lease of life into the national side, inject a new element of youth to propel them forward in the future, not a chance to rekindle ties to players who failed to do it previously.
He will almost certainly, single-handedly, guide Italy to victory at Euro 2020 now and go down in history as a true Italian great, and I would be first to hold my hands up and admit I was wrong. Yet, unfortunately, I can’t quite see this happening.