Rome (AFP) – Roberto Mancini marked the crowning moment of his career on Sunday by winning the European Championship title with an Italy side transformed from the dark days of their 2018 World Cup qualifying fiasco.
The four-time world champions beat England 3-2 on penalties as the Euro 2020 final finished 1-1 after extra time at Wembley, with Italy claiming their second European crown, and first since 1968.
“It has not sunk in yet but we are delighted for the Italian public because they really deserve this after what has been a trying period. This is great joy for us,” said Mancini.
It was his 14th trophy as a manager and first with Italy after falling short as a player with the national team between 1984 and 1994.
“I was very fortunate to play in a great side in 1990 and fortunate to play in a terrific under-21 team in 1988 but despite the fact we were the best team we didn’t win it and lost both times on penalties, so I was due this.”
In May 2018, few were in a hurry to take over from Gian Piero Ventura, after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
First choice Carlo Ancelotti politely declined before Mancini, then coach of Zenit Saint Petersburg, landed his “dream” job.
Mancini had been coaching for 17 years, winning trophies with Fiorentina, Lazio, Inter, Manchester City and Galatasaray.
But his coaching career seemed to have lost a sense of purpose since leaving City in 2013 before the Azzurri hotseat became vacant.
His first job was to restore confidence in a demoralised side.
“At the beginning when he said we had to think about winning the European Championship, we too thought he was crazy,” said captain Giorgio Chiellini.
The 36-year-old defender was at the San Siro in Milan in November 2017 when Italy lost a World Cup play-off to Sweden.
“But it’s a dream which he slowly instilled in our heads until it became reality,” said Chiellini.
The victory follows three years of reconstruction, carried out with the support of many of his former Sampdoria teammates, including former Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli.
The new-look Italy were without big stars, the bulk of their international experience centred largely around Chiellini and fellow Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci.
“He worked on the head, giving us back our confidence, enthusiasm, self-esteem,” said 34-year-old Bonucci.
“He’s a man of few words, but he created a great group and he revived a team that was at their lowest in 60 years. With great serenity, he conveys calm and confidence,” continued Chiellini.
– ‘Young, modern game’ –
The statistics under Mancini have been impressive.
Just two defeats in 39 matches and an ongoing series of 34 games without defeat stretching back to September 2018.
During the European Championship he broke the national record of 30 games without defeat set by former World Cup-winning coach Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s, and is now just one behind the records of 35 held by both Spain and Brazil.
Before this faultless Euro, Italy had enjoyed a perfect qualifying run with 10 wins in 10 matches, and secured a place in the last four of the Nations League to be played in Milan and Turin in October.
They also won the first three matches of their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
But beyond the results, the former Sampdoria and Lazio striker has built a modern team with an eye-catching brand of football.
A solid midfield of Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella proved crucial to victory while remaining faithful to Italy’s defensive fundamentals.
He has opened the door to players, with 77 called up in three years and 35 of them handed debuts.
Nicolo Zaniolo got his first call in September 2018 at the age of 19 before he had even made his league debut with club side Roma.
Barella, 24, and 23-year-old Federico Chiesa were among the architects of the European coronation, with the choice of Manuel Locatelli, 23, and Matteo Pessina, 24, also paying off.
“I feel very proud, because it was not a good situation when I arrived. Everyone said Italy didn’t have good quality players,” said Mancini.
Decline had followed Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory, with group stage exits at the 2010 and 2014 editions, despite reaching the final of Euro 2012 and quarter-finals in 2016.
For Azzurri legend Luigi Riva, on Italy’s previous European championship winning team 53 years ago, the victory is Mancini’s.
“Mancini has given the team a young, modern game, stamped his mark,” said Italy’s all-time leading goalscorer with 35 goals in 42 appearances.
“It is his national team.”
Mancini now has plenty of time to continue shaping his national side for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with his contract extended before the Euro until 2026.
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