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Italy have only been European champions once – it means as much to them as it does to England

Written by on 09/07/2021

If you’ve ever been in Italy when the national football team has a major victory or defeat, you will understand that this is as big a deal for the Italians as it is for us. Well almost.

They have had two World Cup triumphs since Bobby Moore lifted the golden trophy for England in 1966.

But Italy have been European champions only once, in 1968, when England, as reigning world champions, lost to Yugoslavia in the semi-finals.

Italy‘s team then contained names still revered in the country: Dino Zoff, who was still the goalkeeper at 40 when helping his country win the World Cup in 1982; Giacinto Facchetti, one of the world’s first full-backs to be an attacking threat as well; and the deadly Luigi Riva up front.

Anastasi shoots the ball past Yugoslavia's goalkeeper Pantelic to score Italy's second goal in the final of the European Nations Cup soccer tournament in Rome on June 10, 1968. Pic: AP
Image: Pietro Anastasi shoots the ball past Yugoslavia’s goalkeeper Dragan Pantelic to score Italy’s second goal in the final of the European Nations Cup in June 1968. Pic: AP

And here’s the thing. Perhaps only the veteran central defenders Leonardo Bonucci and captain Giorgio Chiellini of the current Italy side are assured of such legendary status in years to come.

Yes, they have gone 33 games unbeaten, but that sequence contained only a single victory against a team ranked above them – when Belgium were beaten in the quarter finals of this tournament.

Even in the previous round they wobbled against Austria and scraped through in extra time.

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However, that’s where the good news ends from an England point of view.

Giacinto Facchetti, captain of the Italian football team is carried by teammates after they had been presented with the cup. Pic: AP
Image: Italy captain Giacinto Facchetti is carried by teammates after winning the Euros in 1968. Pic: AP

The run represents a remarkable turnaround under former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, who took over after the national embarrassment of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Like Gareth Southgate for England, he has given youth its chance and its head – trusting exciting talents like 6’5″ goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 22, Nicola Barella, 24, in midfield, and forward Federico Chiesa, 23.

They have thrown off the shackles – and the eternal image of a team whose primary aim was to win every game 1-0.

They have been arguably the most impressive in this tournament at springing from defence to attack with devastating speed.

With more reliable strikers than Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne they might have had a hatful of goals.

Italy prepare for a Spanish free kick during their semi-final at Wembley. Pic: AP
Image: Italy prepare for a Spanish free kick during their semi-final at Wembley. Pic: AP

But they are still Italian, they still know how to keep the ball and to defend.

If England concede first, as against Denmark, it will be a hard road back. But not an impassable one.

Italy have had an extra day to rest and prepare after their semi-final win over Spain on penalties, but to set against that, they had to fly home and back to England for the final, while Southgate’s men have been able to stay at their own base in the Midlands.

The bookmakers make England narrow favourites, and with the advantage of overwhelming support in the 60,000 crowd, that feels about right.

But it could easily be that the nerve-shredding tension of Wednesday night will be surpassed for the final.

Roberto Mancini will turned Italy's fortunes around in recent years
Image: Italy manager Roberto Mancini

“I think it will be an epic one,” said Italy midfielder Marco Verratti, “with history made either way”.

Which way it went for the Azzurri will be obvious if you walk across any town or village square in Italy on Monday morning.

Something close to dancing in the streets, or morose incomprehension.

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020

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