It didn’t end the way Azzurri fans had hoped. The final was a disappointing conclusion. Yet it offered a renewed belief in the national side and showed a new way forward. That was the great success of the European Championships for Italy. After negotiating a difficult group and knockout phase, Italy reached the finale in Kiev, but weary legs could not stop the Spanish tide.
Italy’s preparations for Euro 2012 encountered all sorts of hurdles. Firstly, the betting scandal reached the squad when Domenico Criscito was denied a place in Poland and Ukraine thanks to police questioning. This caused Coach Cesare Prandelli to remark he would keep the team at home. An earthquake meant the cancellation of a warm-up clash versus Luxembourg and when Italy did take the field in what was their only pre-tournament friendly, against Russia, Prandelli’s customary 4-3-1-2 system was questioned after the 3-0 loss.
Inquiries into the squad selection, nepotism – Prandelli said comments about his son working as part of the staff “really hurt him” – racism and homosexuality were at times greater points of discussion than the tournament. Before the final the tactician remarked the “last two months have been very difficult.”
Waiting in Poland as Italy arrived under this backdrop of uncertainty were reigning World and European Champions Spain. Italy switched to 3-5-2 despite Andrea Barzagli’s injury and played with a verve forgotten since 2006 – with a technically proficient style not seen since 1990 – to draw 1-1. Antonio Di Natale opened the scoring in what was arguably the game of the tournament. The result was the same versus Croatia after Andrea Pirlo’s free kick, meaning Italy had to defeat the Republic of Ireland. They did so thanks to Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Prandelli returned to the 4-3-1-2 formation in that third match and stuck to it. Against England in the last eight the Azzurri were dominant but hampered by poor finishing, having a record 36 shots without scoring. Behind in the shootout, Pirlo’s outrageous ‘Panenka’ swung the pendulum Italy’s way and after Gianluigi Buffon’s save, Alessandro Diamanti calmly sent Italy through. Next was Germany. Italy had history on their side – seven previous tournament meetings had never finished in favour of the Germans – and Balotelli’s brilliant double ensured the streak lived on.
For all the talk of a ‘boring’ Spain, they were devastating in the decider and two goals to the good at half-time. Italy were not out of the contest, enjoying a string of possession and spurning two good chances. However the match was over when Thiago Motta went off injured and with ten men Italy had to settle for second.
Yet the end result cannot discount the positives. Pirlo won plaudits across Europe for his displays. Such was his impact he was talked about as potentially the player of the tournament and a Ballon D’Or winner. The architect was not alone. Buffon proved a terrific leader while Daniele De Rossi was superb as a defender and in midfield. Cassano and Balotelli impressed up front, the former playing his part despite a lack of fitness and Balotelli showing increased maturity. Others such as Federico Balzaretti and Riccardo Montolivo also lifted.
Leading the charge – and revolution after Marcello Lippi’s disastrous second reign – was Prandelli. His philosophy was clear, as he noted on his return home: “As long as we play football we are a good side. So long as we try to take supremacy in midfield we are a good side, but if we try to protect a result we become a side with a thousand fears.” Italy were a pleasant surprise for many thanks to their vibrant style and Prandelli has shown throughout his reign to be inclusive and never arrogant. He was tactically versatile and a terrific man manager. Keeping Prandelli is crucial for the next World Cup. Along the road to Brazil he will further look to integrate younger players.
Italy won many admirers in Poland and Ukraine, adding positively to the tournament even in the face of adversity. They had a lot to prove and did so. Whilst unable to claim the Henri Delaunay Trophy, fans are once again solidly behind the Azzurri and that is testament to the players and Prandelli.