Euro 2020 - Italy kickstarted this remarkable tournament, it’s fitting they had the last laugh
After an absorbing Euro 2020 comes to an end, Pete Sharland reflects on a deserving winner (despite what England fans may think), a team who got the party started all those weeks ago when the world was a quite different place. After a strange season, Italy and Euro 2020 reminded us of just how magical football can be, for the most part.
In the end it was almost anti-climatic. A look of pure indifference on the face of Gianluigi Donnarumma. A man who was vilified in the Italian press and by fans building up to the tournament, all of a sudden a national hero for his sterling work in the penalty shoot-out as England were vanquished, and Italy champions.
But then it wasn’t. As a nation celebrated it was hard not to be happy for this Italian team, unless of course you hailed from the country where the final was played.
This was a team that failed to qualify for the World Cup three years ago, and had failed to make it out of the group stage for the two tournaments prior since winning it all in 2006. Yes Cesare Prandelli and Antonio Conte gave us a couple of magical summers in 2012 and 2016 but both times it was made painfully clear just how short they were of the required standard.
Looking back over the course of the tournament it’s hard not to make the argument that they were the best team. They were imperious in the group stage, admittedly, then stumbled a little against Austria, but then beat two genuinely great teams to reach the final and then beat a third to win it.
'I cried again today' - Roberto Mancini on his emotions at the final whistle
From back to front they were immense. Donnarumma had his moments, and he is far from the finished product as a goalkeeper, but he was mostly a lion. Still the amusement on his face when he was told he was the player of the tournament spoke volumes. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci continue to sup from the fountain of youth that gives them a deceptive turn of pace to go with their unrivalled street smarts. Leonardo Spinazzola was quite possibly the revelation of the tournament before injury cruelly struck him down.
The midfield might be the best we’ve seen on the international stage since Spain. Ciro Immobile was a tireless worker. The two players either side of him, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa, were irresistible at times. Chiesa, in particular, really announced himself as one of the next great players in this game we love.
The bench had it all too. Emerson, often the odd man out at Chelsea, deputised admirably for Spinazzola whilst Manuel Locatelli was tremendous when covering for the injured Marco Verratti at the start of the tournament. Matteo Pessina was the super-sub secret weapon whilst Bryan Cristante did the job he was asked to do every time. Domenico Berardi, hilarious overhead-kick against Spain aside, worked diligently despite being dropped for Chiesa in the knockouts. Federico Bernardeschi, a subject of regular abuse by Juventus fans this season, often offered a spark when brought on against tiring defences.
At the heart of it, of course, were Robby and Luca. You don’t need us to go over it again (plenty of people have done more in-depth profiles) but needless to say there are few people in football as close as these two. For Vialli, he must never have conjured this in even his wildest dreams after he spent 17 months battling pancreatic cancer. He’s not just there for the ride though, he’s the perfect partner for Mancini, balancing him out and offering a slightly different perspective.
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 26: Roberto Mancini (R), Head Coach of Italy celebrates with Gianluca Vialli, Team coordinator of Italy after their side's second goal during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between Italy and Austria at Wembley Sta
Image credit: Getty Images
Right from the moment that Andrea Bocelli rendered the footballing world in awe with a spell-binding performance of Nessun Dorma at the opening ceremony, it was clear that Italy had come to play.. Along with Spain they were the joint top scorers with 13 as Mancini looked to tweak the way in which they played, more open and adventurous.
Not that there wasn’t plenty to admire for the defensively-minded among us. No team recovered more balls than Italy. No team made more tackles (although six teams won more tackles) and, perhaps most tellingly, no team committed more fouls or were shown more yellow cards. Italy’s detractors will say they are a dirty team, who should be punished more often. To an extent that’s true but in reality it is often just street-smarts at a level that most other teams can’t match. Italy have been doing this for years, it’s further forward where there is a real difference with this team.
'It is for them, it is for us' - Bonucci on bringing it home for Italian fans
In a wider context, Italy were the perfect champions for this tournament that thrilled us from start to finish, although it’s hard to argue against Denmark being the romantic choice. It really had it all. Incredible goals, mind-boggling own-goals, great games, dramatic moments and huge upsets. It’s a reminder of just how special football can be when it is done right. UEFA take a lot of stick for a lot of things (and rightly so) but adding more teams was undoubtedly a good thing. North Macedonia, Scotland and Hungary (well the Hungarian players at least) made this a better tournament. Even the multi-city format, if a little janky at times, did offer something unique.
It also, of course, gave us a timely reminder that this really is just a game. Watching Denmark’s players and medical staff fight for Christian Eriksen’s very life was a sombre, bone-chilling moment. Watching the sheer joy the team brought in the games after that was heart-warming to the highest extent. It would certainly do some people some good to remember that and gain a sense of perspective when the mindless and disgraceful violence takes over following a defeat.
Die Dänen wollen für Christian Eriksen ins EM-Finale einziehen
Image credit: Getty Images
Despite those horrible scenes this is a tournament that has to be looked on fondly. Even in today’s age of armchair analysts and know-it-all hipsters we found new players to fall in love with, new teams to enchant us. And after a year without fans it was certainly a sight to behold to see, and hear, them back again. Even if it didn’t always seem the safest to this non-medical eye.
In 18 months' time we’ll go to Qatar and, though questions need to keep being asked of that decision, now is not the time. Now is the time to get yourself onto YouTube, and soak in as much of the last few weeks as you possibly can. And maybe finish it where it all began, with Mr Bocelli. Forza Italia.