For Italy, Sunday represents an opportunity to create happier memories at the European Championships. Since the Azzurri won their only Euros title in 1968, they have had something of a love/hate relationship with the tournament. There have been great wins and heartbreak in equal measure, and on more than one occasion the team have come close to getting their hands on the trophy again, only to be denied in devastating fashion.
In the final of Euro 2000, Italy thought they were on the road to glory. Marco Delvecchio had given them the lead in the second half against France, and it looked for all the world as though they were going to lift the trophy in Rotterdam. But in the fourth minute of stoppage time, France delivered a punch to Italy’s gut, with Sylvain Wiltord’s goal forcing extra time. We all know what happened next, as David Trezeguet smashed home the Golden Goal to earn victory for France and break Italian hearts.
Flashforward to 2012, and Italy’s European Championship devastation came in a different form. Having delivered one of the best performances in the national team’s history to beat Germany in the semi-final and earn their spot in the Kiev showpiece, luck simply wasn’t on their side against Vicente del Bosque’s Spain team. Injury woes in the final meant they finished the match with 10 men, and Spain ultimately ran out 4-0 winners to inflict a painful defeat on a team celebrated for their defensive prowess.
Nine years on, Italy have been presented with another chance to get their hands on the trophy. Having exacted revenge on Spain to win the semi-final, they’ll now face England at Wembley to decide whether it is to be joy or further grief for Italy at the European Championships. The odds on Italy vs England suggest that it is going to be a close match, and it will be interesting to see how Italy cope with the fact that their fans will be completely outnumbered by England’s home support.
Of the current Italy team, only centre-halves Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu were a part of the Euro 2012 squad, so this team shouldn’t be weighed down too heavily by past failures. Indeed, Chiellini and Bonucci are the kinds of characters who will be highly motivated to make up for that disappointment in the final in Kiev nine years ago. The two central defenders have been sensational at this tournament, defending with the kind of gusto you expect from the Italians.
There is a vigour to this Italy team that is new and exciting. So often seen as a defensive minded national team, Italy under Roberto Mancini have been a breath of fresh air, combining swift passing and neat interplay with the kind of defensive resilience we have come to expect. While there aren’t a huge number of standout individuals, or strikers who will threaten the UEFA Euro 2020 top scorer odds, they have a distinct togetherness and team spirit. There is no doubt that Italy deserve their place in the final, and no-one could begrudge them the title, except perhaps the thousands of England fans who will pack into Wembley on Sunday night.
This is the time for this Italian team to show what they are really made of. The win over Spain on penalties represented their 33rd match in a row without suffering defeat. That is the challenge facing England at Wembley, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that it will be third time lucky for Italy in this next European Championship final.