If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it plenty of times: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Try telling that to Italian soccer fans these past few years. The last remnants of the modern-day Italian soccer empire crumbled in 2018 when the country failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. Anger and sadness were quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. How could one of the more prestigious football nations get back to the top and who would be the person to lead them there?
Six months later, Roberto Mancini took charge and began the slow, methodical process of rebuilding the Italian national team. While the commitment to defense that Italy is known for remained, Mancini’s philosophy called for a simple change to the offense: be more dynamic.
The embrace of a more aggressive style of play, coupled with the emergence of a vibrant group of young players to pair with the experienced veterans, led to Italy going a perfect 10 for 10 during European Championship qualifying, scoring 37 goals total. Even with the year delay, Italy entered Euro 2020 as a trendy dark horse pick to win it all.
It’s fitting now to look back in hindsight how Italy book-ended this tournament, starting with that dominant 3-0 win vs. Turkey in Rome on the first matchday. They became the first team in Euro history to win all three of their group matches while keeping a clean sheet, barely breaking a sweat at times.
When the knockout rounds arrived, so did two things Italy hadn’t had to deal with in the group stage: strong competition and pressure. Yet time and time again, they found a way to manage each match to get the win they needed. Austria pushed them to extra time, but they won. They faced the number one team in the world in Belgium, but they won. Spain frustrated them to no end and led early on in the penalty shootout, but still, Italy clawed back to win the match.
However, Sunday’s final presented a challenge on a whole other level. They faced an English team at Wembley Stadium in front of more than 60,000 supporters eager to see their team win their first ever Euro trophy. And when Luke Shaw’s strike sailed into the bottom left corner in the 2nd minute, it was the first time all tournament that Italy had trailed. England came into the match with the best defensive record this tournament, having trailed very little themselves. Manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to go with five at the back seemed to be a stroke of genius for the first half hour of the match.
However, Italy were allowed to grow into the match as their more creative, attacking players began to get on the ball more. In the end, it was 34-year-old center-back Leonardo Bonucci who came up with an equalizer, forcing home a loose ball after the initial corner kick was flicked on towards the middle. From that point, Italy controlled the match, but English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was at his best, making several key stops in the second half and through extra time. As the teams prepared for the penalty shootout, it was fair to wonder who the atmosphere would harm more.
Italy found themselves behind early once again after Andrea Belotti had his attempt saved by Pickford. England seemed to be on their way to glory, but substitute Marcus Rashford struck the left post with his kick while fellow substitute Jadon Sancho would have his attempt saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma. Pickford narrowly stopped Jorginho’s attempt to give England one more lifeline, but Donnarumma once again came up huge by saving Bukayo Saka’s attempt, clinching Italy’s first Euro title since 1968.
Questions will be asked of Southgate for bringing on Rashford and Sancho too late to truly get into the game, as well as entrusting a 19-year-old who had never taken a competitive penalty before with the team’s final attempt. Italy won’t be concerned with all that, having kept their cool like they’ve been doing this whole tournament. They got contributions from every level of their team, from Donnarumma in net to the likes of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa scoring goals. Not even an injury to left-back Leonardo Spinazzola was able to slow this team down.
How long Italy can maintain their current 34-match unbeaten run, or if this form can continue into next year’s FIFA World Cup, remains to be seen. Right now, Italy fans around the world are just glad to be back among the elite of this great game. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was this Italian national team. They did it on their own terms and the result is they are kings of Europe once again.