Azzurri Surpasses Expectation

Euro 2012 once again showed how Italy can rise from the darkest depths of controversy. Rossella Marrai traces that journey for the Azzurri

Prandelli Pride in Azzurri  Voyage of Discovery

In the words of Vincent del Bosque, ‘everyone loses sometimes’ and it was Italy’s time to lose on Sunday July 1, against the mighty, and quite possibly the greatest teams of all time, Spain. Having gone through the Euro 2012 campaign undefeated up until the final game, Azzurri coach, Cesare Prandelli bowed out in a dignified manner.

It has been an extraordinary championship. Now we have to grow over the next two years. We went through some hard times by staying united. We also showed that we can lose with dignity. I’ve complimented the players.”

Prandelli: It has been an extraordinary championship

A highly impressive qualification campaign instilled some hope in the hearts of the nation of a possible semi-final berth. However, the final weeks of build-up was far from fruitful than that of the yellow brick road they would surprisingly discover.

Calcioscommesse, Earthquakes and Potholed Build-up

In 1982, a betting scandal shook Italy, but astoundingly the Azzurri managed to keep their wits about them to be crowned FIFA World Champions for the third time. Similarly, in 2006, a match-fixing scandal erupted across The Boot, which involved big teams like Milan and Juventus, and this time it was Marcello Lippi who instilled serenity inside the squad while everything crumbled in league football.

That year Fabio Cannavaro hoisted the highly sought-after prize and six years later it was no different. Another betting scandal broke out and it left a tremor of fear when fellow Italian defender Domenico Criscito was hauled up for questioning.

Police raided the camp at dawn

Once all the players were at the disposition of the coach at the famous training camp of Coverciano, the squad was assigned two official friendlies, against Luxembourg and Russia. Undeniably not enough time to iron out any possible formation and tactical doubts that hung over Prandelli.

The first pothole they encountered was on May 29, 2012.  Not only did it affect the former Fiorentina tactician’s preparation but it was a nationwide tragedy, in the shape of a 5.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Emilia-Romagna — the region in which Italy were set to face Luxembourg.

The earthquake hit northern Italy

With the death toll rising, there was no option but to cancel the game; leaving just one friendly match against Russia to get things right. Worlds away from the impressive form of the qualifiers, the Azzurri stooped to a 3-0 loss to Group A contenders. It was a loss which immediately resulted in numerous pundits writing off La Nazionale.

Voyage of Discovery and Avoiding the Biscotto

Little did they know that a sweet and sour voyage of discovery would lie ahead for Captain Gigi Buffon and his boys! Alla stile Italiano (in Italian style) the Azzurri would get off to a slow start in their Group C matches.

As the football gods of fate would have it, Italy’s opening and closing game would be against Spain. Andrea Pirlo and company managed to hold their own against Andres Iniesta and his colleagues in the opener, where they grabbed the breakthrough in the game.

Fortune always favours the brave and it did so, although for all of three minutes, for Italy and Antonio Di Natale. The Udinese front-man boldly replaced an anonymous Mario Balotelli, and rightly so, as he pitched in the first goal of Group C with his first touch.

Since he wasn’t part of the Euro qualifiers, it would be a memorable first touch in 2012 for him after having not featured in a competitive game for Italy since their 3-2 loss to Slovakia, in South Africa in 2010. A bitter memory of thus having hit the final missed penalty in 2008 quarter-finals against the same adversary was also laid to rest.

Antonio di Natale exorcised a demon from 2008 scoring with his first touch

That impressive 1-1 draw with Spain was followed by a barrage of wasted chances against Croatia. Failure to make the most of opportunities created, Italy’s only incision was Andrea Pirlo’s stunner of a free-kick and that was cancelled out by the newly- anointed household name of Mario Mandzukic.

Back-to-back 1-1 draws were far from what Prandelli had in mind, as nothing but maximum points would be accepted in the final match against the already eliminated Republic of Ireland, all while hoping Croatia wouldn’t hand them the famous biscotto which so famously haunted Italy in their 2004 elimination in the Euro against Sweden.

No, I’m not angry,” the 54-year-old tactician said after the match against the Croats. “Of course we are a bit annoyed because a side that plays football and creates chances needs to kill off the game.

Football is rather unique in that way, because just one cross can ruin everything you have built up over the course of a game, so we have a lot of regrets.”

Nevertheless, the best way to get over regret is to eclipse it with the better part of what it could have been and that is exactly what they did against their ally-turned-enemy, Giovanni Trapattoni. Capitalizing on two openings directed at goal, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli gave Italy their first win of the tournament, marking a turning point in their attitude. With Croatia having lost 1-0 to Spain, the Azzurri had managed to dodge the potholes and reach the yellow brick road.

Progress continued by eliminating England in a 4-2 penalty shoot-out, which saw Pirlo, or rather ‘Twinkle Toes’, effortlessly graze the ball past Joe Hart to perform the famous cucchiaio or Panenka penalty.

Pirlo’s perfect Panenka

Whilst fortune, or perhaps destiny, may have played a hand in Italy’s rise, few would have favoured the chances against Joachim Löw’s men; few, except the highly criticized Mario Balotelli.

More often than not it is dangerous to make a bad boy angry and even more so when he is in the public eye. Ballotelli let his feet silence the critics who were all but crucifying him for not living up to expectations. That ‘Balotelli moment’ came with a header and an unstoppable diagonal shot clocked in at 128km per hour which sent Italy through to the final of the European Championship. And ‘Balo’ lived up to the tag of ‘Super Mario’.

Balotelli’s Bulldozer

It was indeed a special moment for him and the Azzuri, one they would cherish as: “The most beautiful day of my life. I have waited for this moment for so long, especially with my mum here, I wanted to make her happy.” It was like this one act had united the squad, Prandelli was getting the recognition he deserved, and an air of belief had restored itself in the training camp.

We came here with lots of non-football related problems, and also the friendlies we played during our preparation went pretty badly,” Gigi Buffon told before the climatic event. “So that’s why we were a bit afraid of playing a bad tournament. But along with the coach we managed to find the right atmosphere within the team, so we could make it here.”

Italy feel La Furia Roja

Spain, the defending European Champions and World Cup winners, were up next and they were on a daunting unbeaten run, of competitive matches, stretching back to their 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening match of the 2010 World Cup. Since they had already played Vincent Del Bosque’s ‘false nine’ side to a draw in the opening Group C encounter, the Italians had the confidence but lacked fitness.

The Italians had already played thirty minutes longer than the Spanish, excluding the penalties taken, and were subjected to less rest than their counterparts. Fatigue and injuries were so rife that Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi could not train the day before the final, Claudio Marchisio was struggling to get into full fitness. Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta were both not 100% fit from their injuries picked up in the course of the tournament and it evidently took its toll.

Chiellini was replaced in the opening 21 minutes due to injury, while Thiago Motta reduced the side to 10 men, due to injury, after just three minutes of coming on. There was little the game changers such as Pirlo and Balotelli could have done during the 4-0 drubbing which left Prandelli awestruck.

When we fly over Kyiv and see the stadium lights I will have pangs of disappointment but I leave proud,” Prandelli said after the game.

Testa Alta, Heroes and Cassano’s Victory

Despite the monstrous defeat, the Azzurri returned winners, for having restored faith in their fans and above all, themselves. Like the papers printed: Testa Alta– Heads held high.

With a shining squad comes a group of star players and Buffon, Pirlo and De Rossi were undoubtedly Italy’s best trio. Having only conceded three goals up until the final, the skipper proved once more why he became one of the highest-priced goalkeepers on the transfer market. Not only did he control his Juve-inspired backline, but his passion and belief in the squad carried Prandelli’s men through the nerviest of moments.

Pirlo’s poise, elegance and grace were stupendous to watch. With each touch of the ball the former Milan man proved he was a dictator of play, from the backline right to the front. The midfielder’s vision was in a class of its own and his goal against Croatia remained the only goal scored directly off a free kick in the tournament. It was a strike which embodied everything that is Andrea Pirlo.

De Rossi proved to all why he hails from the Eternal City. With one hand in bandage and a sciatic nerve problem, De Rossi fought like a true gladiator through the pain barrier. Breaking up play and clearing balls, the Roma player was a class act from the boy which famously elbowed Brian McBride during the 2006 World Cup. His selflessness to help the team even saw him step into the centre of defence, where he intercepted play as if he had played there his whole life.

A story of triumph of human spirit

And although Italy may have left Ukraine with the silver medals, one person walked away with much more than the medal and a runners-up tag. That man was Antonio Cassano. Having suffered a stroke last November, it was initially feared that the Milan striker would never get on to the field again. But not only did the braveheart overcome a heart operation, he even made it to Prandelli’s hand-picked team for the Euros. His eagerness to return paid off and he managed to score a goal and bag two assists, a stellar victory in itself.

While the players may have been fighting off their tears of disappointment after the final whistle, Cassano had one thing to celebrate and that was the most important thing of all: life.

Prandelli Project

The Orzinuovi-born tactician can exude so much humility and joy for he has had his baptism by fire and come out a proud man. Just two years after taking charge from some great predecessors, Cesare Claudio Prandelli took the brave step to change an ultimately successful set-up. The dynamics and outlook of the game were changed. The Italians were playing with passion and hunger once more; they were managing to control the majority of the game and poked around the goal post a lot more. Formation adaptations from a back-three and back-four were done with ease and the stereotype of the famous catenaccio play was dropped. All this was done with success, while keeping the identity of Italian football intact. They turned out to be the most alarming, yet highly positive dimensions in the Italian squad.

Light criticism may have been thrown in the direction of the coach for the underuse of youngsters such as Angelo Ogbonna, Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Borini. But with a long future ahead under the eye of the youth development king, Prandelli has provided them with an experience like no other and one they can only build upon.

The ‘Prandelli Project’ will continue to grow during next year’s Confederation Cup tournament, a prelude to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and if this year’s tournament is anything to go by, I Tre Colori (The Three Colours) will be favouring their chances of success.

 “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. I have to compliment my team because they really played an excellent tournament,”  said the master tactician, appreciating his team.

About Rossella Marrai

Rossella Marrai is a sports journalist working in South Africa. Follow her at