Azzurri on edge at the Euros

Italy’s record at the European Championship has always been about fine margins, near-misses and close calls, writes Susy Campanale.

Italy won the World Cup four times, reaching the Final on six occasions, but their relationship with the European Championship is considerably less successful. So often the tournament was one of near misses, with success or failure resting on the flip of a coin – literally when they won it in 1968. The semi-final with the Soviet Union ended goalless after extra time in Naples, so before penalties were introduced, passage to the Final was decided by a coin toss. Azzurri captain Giacinto Facchetti picked right and Italy went on to draw 1-1 with Yugoslavia. Rather than go for the coin again, this time the game was replayed two days later, the Nazionale able to change five of the starting XI to introduce fresh legs, something their opponents couldn’t do amid injuries. Those fitness levels made the difference and the Azzurri won 2-0 with goals from Gigi Riva and Pietro Anastasi.

Italy failed to qualify in five of the 14 Euros they were eligible for and have never won it again after that strange 1968 edition. There were some very close calls, securing fourth place in 1980 as hosts, but there weren’t any semi-finals in this rather odd eight-team format, missing out on the Final to Belgium due to goals scored, as they were level on points and goal difference. Italy lost the clash for fourth place with reigning champions Czechoslovakia on penalties after a 1-1 stalemate.

They did reach the semi-finals in 1988, with a young side largely made up of Azeglio Vicini’s impressive Under-21 team promoted to the senior squad along with their coach following a dire 1986 World Cup campaign. Goal twins Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were already starting to form their classic partnership, Paolo Maldini and Giuseppe Giannini were coming through, but fell 2-0 to the USSR in the semi-final, before Marco van Basten’s legendary performance to win the Final 2-0.

The ultimate near miss of course was in Euro 2000, a tournament Italy were mere seconds away from winning against all odds. Coach Dino Zoff started strong, winning the group with a perfect record against Turkey, Belgium and Sweden, before sweeping Romania aside. The semi-final against the Dutch co-hosts in Amsterdam remains legendary, as despite Gianluca Zambrotta’s early red card and two penalties for the Netherlands, the Azzurri wall held out. Francesco Toldo – only playing because Gigi Buffon was injured before the competition started – saved a Frank de Boer spot-kick and watched Patrick Kluivert fire the second onto the upright. When 10-man Italy forced it to a shoot-out after 120 minutes, the Oranje visibly realised they were doomed. Toldo saved two and Jaap Stam blasted another over the bar.

With such a heroic showing in the semi-final, it felt as if Italy were destined to lift the trophy in their first Final since 1968. Marco Delvecchio gave them the lead after great work from Francesco Totti, he of the chipped penalty against Holland, and Alessandro Del Piero missed a sitter that would haunt him all the way to 2006. The champagne corks were being loosened and the countdown on when Sylvain Wiltord equalised for France on a long Fabien Barthez ball, squirming past Toldo’s broken nose. This was the one and only competition decided by the Golden Goal and the cruelty of David Trezeguet’s strike into the roof of the net on 103 minutes showed why.

The bitter taste to the Euros continued in 2004, Italy admittedly not doing enough to qualify, but still eliminated only by the extremely convenient 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark that qualified both sides. It wasn’t much better in 2008, flattened 3-0 by the Netherlands, drawing 1-1 with Romania, before a hard-fought revenge victory over France, only to go out on penalties to Spain in the quarter-final.

Italy’s third and most recent foray to the Euros Final was in 2012. Antonio Di Natale secured a draw with Spain, Andrea Pirlo’s free kick grabbed another 1-1 with Croatia and the terrible twosome of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli got the better of the Republic of Ireland. It was penalties again for the quarters, Pirlo’s Panenka making a mockery of Joe Hart, before SuperMario’s best performance of his Azzurri career, a brace beating Germany 2-1 in the semis. Luck deserted Cesare Prandelli in the Final, as they were already trailing to Spain by the time Thiago Motta went off injured as their third and final substitute, reducing his team to 10 men for half-an-hour and an eventual 4-0 defeat.

Finally, Euro 2016 under Antonio Conte, comfortably going through the group stage, gaining revenge against Spain with a 2-0 victory before capitulating to Germany on penalties in the quarter-final. Once again, they were good, but fine margins make all the difference for Italy at the Euros.

Italy at the European Championships:

1960 – Did not enter

1964 – Did not qualify

1968 – Champions

1972 – Did not qualify

1976 – Did not qualify

1980 – Fourth Place

1984 – Did not qualify

1988 – Semi-Final

1992 – Did not qualify

1996 – Group Stage

2000 – Runners-up

2004 – Group stage

2008 – Quarter-Final

2012 – Runners-up

2016 – Quarter-Final

How they got to Euro 2020: Italy cruised through Group J with 10 wins out of 10.