Italy was left on its knees when the final whistle went against Sweden at San Siro. The worst fears of a proud footballing nation had been realised. A full 60 years on from their last failure to reach a World Cup, the Azzurri had lost their play-off to reach Russia 2018 and would miss out on the global jamboree.
Less than four years later, they are European champions. It’s funny how football works sometimes.
In Gian Piero Ventura, Italy had a head coach that few Italians seemed to feel like they could get truly behind at the best of times. He was far too pragmatic for many, and his spell will forever be remembered for his decision to ask defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi to warm-up in that crucial clash with Sweden with his side needing a goal rather than turn to attacking talent Lorenzo Insigne.
When Italy fell short, Ventura was inevitably sacked, and Roberto Mancini quickly made it known that he would like to be considered for the job. After seeing out the 2017-18 season with Zenit Saint Petersburg, the former Italy striker was handed the role and the Azzurri’s fortunes were about to be turned on their head.
After a stuttering start in the Uefa Nations League, Mancini started to leave his mark on the national team. He brought along young hopefuls to many of his early squads and over time they have become key parts of their Euro squad. Italy won all 10 of their games in 2019 as momentum on the pitch started to make a nation believe again.
The likes of Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Federico Bernardeschi and Marco Verratti were now among the stalwarts of the side, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci continuing to be mainstays at the heart of defence as a pleasing mix of youth and experience, structure and verve made the Azzurri a pleasant side to watch.
Following the Covid-19 pandemic there was no breaking of the Azzurri’s stride. They qualified for October’s Nations League final and went on a long run of games without conceding, entering this summer’s Euros as the most in-form of form teams.
And when they got the tournament off to a flying start against Turkey, winning 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, it was clear that this was a completely transformed side from the one that looked flat and flustered on that big night in Milan against Sweden.
In Jorginho and Verratti they have built a midfield base which can dictate games, while Insigne and Federico Chiesa have been two of the star forwards of the tournament. Throw in the dependable pair of Bonucci and Chiellini and this was always going to be the side to beat. It makes one wonder all the more just how Ventura could have failed so badly.
But that episode of Italy’s footballing history is over now. Instead, this is a time of success and of hope. Apart from the prospect of Chiellini turning 38 before Qatar 2022, there is little to suggest this Azzurri side should be broken out of its stride in time for the World Cup. And for as long as Mancini sticks around, they are in safe hands if a mini-revival of the squad is considered necessary between now and then.
After their Wembley triumph over England on Sunday, the sky is arguably the limit for both manager and team. A nation scorned has rallied to become champions again. Now for a World Cup run to truly banish those horrid memories of 2017.