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Forza Azzurri: Behind Mancini's Italian renaissance

July 12, 2021

Italy triumphed over England at Wembley to win the European Championship. Not only has coach Roberto Mancini assembled a talented team — he has also drawn strength from despair, both on and off the pitch.

Italy football players celebrate at Wembley Stadium
Italy's strength and sense of cohesion permeates through the entire squad and staffImage: Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Sandwiched among the shouts of "Campioni!" and "Forza Azzurri!", there was another chant from the Italian players at full-time at Wembley which really summed them up. 

"Ole, ole, ole! Spina! Spina!" they sang, in hommage to Leonardo Spinazzola. The 28-year-old Roma left-back, one of the standout players of Euro 2020, had ruptured his Achilles tendon in the quarterfinal against Belgium and had picked up his winners medal on crutches.

He will be out of action for at least six months but his teammates in the Squadra Azzurra haven't forgotten him and dedicated their victoy in the "finale" - or "Spinale" to him.

EURO2020 I Italien - England
Image: Christian Charisius/dpa/picture alliance

Italian renaissance under Roberto Mancini

After the footballing nadir of November 2017, when a playoff defeat to Sweden saw Italy fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, the Azzurri did not enter Euro 2020 with high expectations.

But head coach Roberto Mancini, who took charge six months after that nightmare playoff in Milan, has since presided over an Italian renaissance of which the scholars and artists of 15th century Florence would have been proud.

"Forza Azzurri!" ("come on, the blues!") is the famous cry from Italian fans. The word "forza," however, also means "strength," and Mancini has proven himself to be a master of drawing bucket loads of it from the depths of despair.

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini standing on the side of the pitch during the opening game against Turkey
Italian renaissance: Roberto Mancini has turned around the fortunes of the AzzurriImage: Alberto Lingria/Reuters/AP/dpa/picture alliance

It was on show after the wins over Belgium and Spain as the Italian players rallied around the stricken Spinazzola, and at the final against England, but it permeates the squad, the coaching staff and indeed the entire country, the European nation which suffered first, and arguably most, from the coronavirus.

For Mancini himself, it's a road to redemption after his own international career failed to progress how he would have liked. Despite earning legendary status with his 168 goals in 566 games for Serie A side Sampdoria from 1982 to 1997, Mancini only managed four goals in 36 appearances for his country.

He was famously an unused substitute at Italia '90, and acrimoniously pulled out of Italy's squad for the World Cup in the United States four years later, having been demoted to at least third in the striking pecking order behind Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola.

Giving everyone a chance

It spoke volumes that, with qualification from Group A already secured by the closing stages of the game against Wales in Rome, Mancini used his four remaining substitutions to give Bryan Cristante, Giacomo Raspadori, Gaetano Castrovilli and even reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu a taste of tournament football.

He also called up Francesco Acerbi, the 33-year-old former AC Milan ultra and notorious party animal whose career and life were turned upside down by testicular cancer in 2014. "I used to drink anything," Acerbi has said. "I seriously considered quitting football. Cancer saved my life."

Italy's Francesco Acerbi in action with Austria's Xaver Schlager
Italian defender Francesco Acerbi has rewarded Roberto Mancini's faithImage: Carl Recine/REUTERS

Now, under Mancini, the Lazio defender has become a key part of the Italian defense, a trustworthy understudy to veteran center-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. He played all 120 minutes against Austria in the last-16, even setting up Matteo Pessina's winning goal with neat hold-up play in the box.

Mancini's man-management, as well as his tactical shift away from classic Italian defensive catenaccio to a more possession and wing-based style — arguably more classically "Spanish" than the combative Spain side which impressed in the semifinal — has restored Italy's faith in its national team.

Gianluca Vialli, Mancini's 'goal twin'

At Wembley on Sunday, Mancini banished memories of one of the most painful defeats of his playing career: Sampdoria's extra-time loss to Barcelona in the 1992 European Cup final at the same stadium.

Mancini's strike partner that night was once again by his side: Gianluca Vialli, the "capo delegazione," Italy's "delegation chief" who has overcome much more serious setbacks than lost football matches in recent years.

Italy coach Roberto Mancini celebrates with team boss Gianluca Vialli
"I gemelli del gol": Sampdoria's former "goal twins" Roberto Mancini (right) and Gianluca Vialli (left)Image: Laurence Griffiths/REUTERS

In 2017, the former Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea striker, who scored 16 goals in 59 appearances for Italy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"I considered it a phase of my life that had to be lived with courage and from which to learn something," Vialli said in November 2018 after undergoing eight months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy.

"It was hard to have to tell others, to tell my family; you never want to hurt the people who love you," he said. "It gives you a sense of shame, as if it's your fault. I would wear a sweater under my shirt so others wouldn't notice [the weight loss], so that I would still be the same Vialli they knew."

The cancer returned in 2019 before Vialli was eventually given the all-clear in April 2020. Mancini was one of the few close friends he confided in.

Whether disappointment on the pitch with Sampdoria in 1992 or life-threatening illness, the "gemelli del gol," the "goal twins," as they were known in their playing days, stick together and draw strength from despair.

Leonardo Spinazzola knows that, and so does Franceso Acerbi. And on Sunday, it carried a reborn nation emerging from the darkness of the pandemic all the way to glory. Forza, Azzurri, forza.