Following numerous struggles on the international stage, Italy somewhat changed tact having failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and in 2018 experienced manager Roberto Mancini was drafted in to turn their fortunes around, and few could argue the pivot worked perfectly.
With the now 57-year-old taking on the appointment in May 2018 with Italy at their then lowest FIFA World Ranking of 20th place, he quickly helped them to a few positive results, they dipped further to 21st place – but did qualify through for the 2020 European Championships with three games to spare – topping Group J with ten wins from ten and becoming only the sixth national side to qualify for the competition with a perfect record.
History then shows they stormed the competition, ultimately taking a 3-2 penalty shoot out victory over England at Wembley Stadium, and Mancini more than played his part in helping them to only their second European Championship title, 53 years after the Azzurri won their maiden title back in 1968 and for those who like a flutter you would have got good odds from online betting in Australia if you had put your money on Mancini lifting that one.
Then, it all seemed to go rather pear shaped for Mancini and his charges and quite quickly really. Having lost the UEFA Nations League semi-final against Spain (a 2-1 defeat at the San Siro Stadium) it ended their run of 37 games unbeaten with more than three years passing from their last defeat. Things then became worse, as Italy entered their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in poor form and results did not go their way, as they finished two points behind Switzerland and needed to go through the second round of qualifying again having finished second.
Italy again missed out on qualifying for the World Cup ultimately as they lost the semi-final play off tie against North Macedonia (1-0) to notch up consecutive failures and many believed Mancini was now seriously considering his future – a future that did not become clearer as Italy then lost 3-0 to Argentina in June’s CONMEBOL-UEFA Cup of Champions (rebranded as the 2022 Finalissima.
It seems a startling run of fortunes, 2018 and 2022 World Cup failures sandwiching great European Championship success in 2020 and the disappointment shown by key and experienced players after the North Macedonia shock remains raw to this day.
Veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini commented:
“It is clear that we are destroyed and crushed, a great void will remain within us. There is a great disappointment. Even today we played a good game but we couldn’t score. From September to today we have made mistakes and we have paid for them.”
With midfielder Marco Verratti adding that the game had become a ‘real nightmare’:
“This group had a great chance at the World Cup. We came from the unbeaten record, so it is difficult to accept what happened tonight. We all know that we have given everything. Now surely it is time to ask ourselves some questions.”
The questions certainly followed as you would expect, but the simple truth is there are no direct answers as Mancini himself conceded at the time:
“It’s hard to say something right now – I don’t know what to say. Last summer was the most beautiful joy, now comes the greatest disappointment. It is not easy to think of other things. I am very sorry for the boys: I love them much more tonight than in July. I am the coach, I am the first responsible, the boys are not. They have a great future, they are strong players for the future of the national team. We did not deserve this defeat.”
With the 2022 campaign seeing Italy simply waste too many good chances at goal – 32 alone in the North Macedonia defeat – if Mancini does honour his contract given it runs until June 2026, the biggest question to answer is the capacity to convert chances and Ciro Immobile does not shoulder all of the blame on that front. With Italian legend Roberto Baggio recently calling for rule changes to automatically qualify the most recent European Championship winner straight through to the following World Cup – the bottom line is Italy’s problems would simply have then been magnified on an even greater stage.
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