Italian soccer shoots for a renaissance

Italy's Nicolo Barella, right, holds off Albania's Jasir Asani during the Group B match between Italy and Albania at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, June 15, 2024. (AP Photo)
Italy's Nicolo Barella, right, holds off Albania's Jasir Asani during the Group B match between Italy and Albania at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, June 15, 2024. (AP Photo)

Summary

The Azzurri may be the reigning European champions, but it has taken an overhaul of the squad by new coach Luciano Spalletti to give them a chance to defend the title.

DORTMUND, Germany—Italy’s first game of the European Championship was barely 30 seconds old on Saturday and the Azzurri were already losing. But goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who had just let in the opening goal to lowly Albania, was doing his best to reassure his teammates.

He strode off his line, palms outstretched, doing the universal gesture for “stay calm." Everything would be all right. After all, they were the defending European champions.

The problem was that past success rarely means anything in Italian soccer. The recent history of this team has more twists than a bowl of spaghetti. Italy won the title three years ago, at a pandemic-delayed Euro 2020, then promptly failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup by losing a playoff to North Macedonia. That disappointment only brought back ugly memories of winning the World Cup in 2006 and being knocked out in the group stages of 2010 and 2014.

So as the Azzurri landed in Germany for Euro 2024, Italy could be forgiven for wondering which version of the team would show up.

“We need to convince ourselves, not only the fans," Italy coach Luciano Spalletti said. “In a way, we are facing ourselves, not the outside world."

Coughing up a goal to Albania in the first minute of their campaign wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. But the reaction—scoring twice in the next 15 minutes to win 2-1—was a welcome surprise. Italy’s status as current European champion isn’t enough to put them among the favorites for this tournament alongside England, France, or Germany. But the Azzurri, who face Spain on Thursday, feel like they have already avoided a crisis.

“It was a positive to have that shock," forward Federico Chiesa said after the game.

Chiesa is one of only a handful of veterans from the team that lifted the trophy in London three years ago. The combination of an epic high at Euro 2020 and the soul-searching caused by missing the 2022 World Cup prompted radical turnover for the Azzurri.

Their defensive centurions, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, both retired. The championship-winning coach, Roberto Mancini, quit in 2023 to take a high-paying gig as manager of Saudi Arabia’s national team. He was replaced by Spalletti, fresh off an improbable Serie A title win with Napoli, and Spalletti immediately set about remaking the team in his image. There has been so much change in the squad that 16 of the 23 players on this summer’s roster have made fewer than 10 appearances for Italy. For Euro 2024, Spalletti was betting on approach, not experience. At an average of 26 years and 287 days, his lineup against Albania was Italy’s youngest at a European Championship since 1988.

“We have to keep faith in our style," Spalletti said after the victory. “That’s the route forward."

Three years ago, Italy won the tournament with a pragmatic philosophy designed by Mancini that made few allowances for style. The Azzurri were freewheeling and opportunistic up front, but gritty and diligent at the back. Match after match, they were built to grind down opponents and survive to the next round. The Azzurri required extra time to beat Austria in the round of 16, a penalty shootout to take down Spain in the semifinals, and more penalties to beat England in the final.

But Spalletti, a 65-year-old in his fourth decade of management, wants more from his young team.

“Ever since I started coaching, I’ve been told what matters is winning," he said Saturday night. “No, what matters is playing well. In order for us to win the Euros, we have to play good football."

Spalletti hasn’t had much time to put anything in place. Before the Euros kicked off, he’d been in the dugout for all of 10 games. Still, his imprint is clear. As laid out in six Spalletti commandments posted on Italy’s national training base at Coverciano, the new Azzurri have been designed for control. He wants Italy to seek out possession, dictate the tempo of games, and hunt the ball higher up the field. That much was clear against Albania with 68% possession.

Gone are the days of sitting back, hoping to count on a defensive fortress. In Italian soccer’s latest renaissance, Spalletti has a clear idea of how he wants his team to play and, most importantly, mount a title defense that doesn’t end in embarrassment.

“A national team," Spalletti said, “must be a pack of wolves."

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com

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