A spoonful of narrative before the showdown.
This summer’s European football bonanza is set to conclude in the early hours of Monday morning when the two men’s national sides of Italy and England will battle it out to be crowned champions of UEFA Euro 2020 at Wembley Stadium.
Recent pattern suggests that international knockout tournaments are often won by teams with a cohesive squad, and duly, both England and Italy have boasted two of the most cohesive units in this tournament. Both sides have surreal squad depth and more than one style of play, with the overall output being much greater than the sum of its parts.
But that’s not where the parallel between the two sides ends.
The current Italian men’s side is a perfect blend of good old catenaccio – defensive orientation – as well as individual creativity, the foundations for which were laid by Arrigo Sacchi and later Maurizio Viscidi – a Sacchi disciple – over the past decade, who realised that Italian football needed restructuring right from the youth level.
It took its time, though. The disastrous spell of Gian Piero Ventura saw the four-time world champions not even make it to the World Cup in 2018. The lowest of lows. But from those ashes the Italians have risen back, thanks to a robust footballing infrastructure and one Roberto Mancini.
The current Mancini looks a far cry from the pugnacious Italian who was known for his constant in-fighting during an otherwise successful spell at Manchester City. That, though, can be accredited to the fact that the 56-year-old has been allowed to bring into the national setup – his national setup – the people he believed would help him inculcate a sense of togetherness while also raising the profile of the squad. His lifelong friendship with Gianluca Vialli, who is currently part of Italy’s non-playing staff as a delegation chief, is right at the heart of it.
Success, though, is something Mancini can not be doubted for. In his time as a player and a manager, he’s won trophies almost everywhere he’s been. But his management of the Italian side throws light on the mistakes he himself made back in his playing days, when his self-admittingly “regretful” actions restricted him from having an international career someone of his profile deserved. He is keen on giving his players game time, and the fact that of the 26 players only Alex Meret, the third-choice goalkeeper, hasn’t featured on the pitch, is a testament of him building upon his own past actions.
England’s men’s team, on the other hand, have reached a final in a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. For a nation priding itself on being the birthplace of the sport, this is not a boastful record. But for too long English football has generally been prone to taking a bit of time to evolve and adapt, which has reflected in its footballing philosophies going back to a century and a half.
Moreover, focusing on the recent decades, England’s “golden” generation fell victim to inter-club rivalries, with former players of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal often talking about the cliques the England setups existed in, which often prevented any national squad to develop a sense of togetherness both on and off the pitch in order to have long-term success.
That changed when Gareth Southgate was given charge of the senior men’s team in 2016, although the work had already begun long before that. The 2012-established St. George’s Park became the focal point for the growth and evolution of football in the country. Southgate was already a part of the national setup by 2013 when he became manager of the men’s U21s. With 57 national caps between 1995 and 2004, he had been part of the national sides that never managed to hit the height their collective potential warranted. He understood what was lacking, and what was needed to be done both on and off the pitch to make sure English sides not only performed well, but also grew.
Throughout his tenure, Gareth has focused on having a cohesive, functional unit instead of oversaturating his squad with big-name players just for the sake of it. This has often come off as conservative and defensive, even going into this tournament where people have not shied away from calling for his head for not selecting an exciting enough side.
But Gareth is a pragmatist. He does not involve big names in his side just for the sake of it. He focuses on what he thinks will work best and he runs with it. And it has worked. His side are in a final, vindicating every decision he has taken. Will anyone really care if this pragmatism takes them all the way?
In his decisions, Southgate displays the stern quality ever manager needs, especially an England national team manager, who will always be subjected to outside noise and relentless, ruthless scrutiny.
It’s not just that. His level of communication with his players, staff, and the media is surreal. It has proved very hard for an England manager to even handle one of them, let alone juggle all three, which Southgate has made look way easier than it is. Also, he and his side have also taken many important stances against discriminatory abuse, while also perpetuating the Football Association’s many goals to make the sport more inclusive and less discriminatory at all levels, often in the face of vitriolic revolt.
By the virtue of their football, their comportment, and their off-pitch stances, Southgate’s England are proving to be the face of an evolving nation that is more accepting of its multicultural, multi-ethnic identity while being more receptive to the idea of change and growth.
In reaching the final of the Euros, both England and Southgate have dealt away with some of the demons that have haunted them for a long, long time. For England, their men’s side reaching their first final since the 1966 World Cup win is massive, but doing so while beating Germany is even more crucial. The penalty shootout loss against the Germans in Euro 1996 haunted the country, but also Gareth in particular, whose penalty miss concluded that encounter. In his post-match interviews after England beat Germany in the quarters, he revealed that he never really got over it.
“I was looking at the big screen and I saw Dave Seaman up there and, you know, I can’t …” he said. “For the team-mates that played with me, I can’t change that. That’s always going to hurt.”
It may yet remain with him, but there are now new memories to cherish and hold onto.
In less than 48 hours, Italy and England will face each other. It will be a hotly contested match and both teams will have an equal chance to win the tournament. But no matter the outcome, in more ways than one, both teams and their managers will end the 2020 Euros as victors in their own right.