Gian Piero Ventura has been coaching for 41 years but the squads he has picked for Italys World Cup qualifiers show he has not lost his faith in young players
Two hours of football in Berlins Olympiastadion were not enough to separate Italy and France in the 2006 World Cup final. In the resultant penalty shoot-out, Italian defender Fabio Grosso stepped up to take his kick with the dreams of a nation in his left boot. He confidently converted his penalty, floating the ball into the top-right corner as Fabien Barthez dived the other way. Italy were champions of the world and there was pandemonium at the Piazza Venezia back in Rome as Italians celebrated winning their fourth World Cup.
The shadow of the Calciopoli scandal loomed large over Italian football at the time, but the Azzurri could not have done a better job alleviating the embarrassment of the scandal that rocked their domestic game. Throughout the tournament, the Italians led by Ballon dOr winning captain Fabio Cannavaro had pulled together and, when necessary, deployed their famed Catenaccio tactics. Their door-bolt football limited opponents to only two goals in seven matches and one of those was an own goal and the other was a penalty.
The hope was that this Italy side, with their experience, cunning and skill, would continue to prevail in years to come. Three days after lifting the World Cup, however, Marcello Lippi elected not to renew his contract. The Italian football federation gave former Milan legend Roberto Donadoni the job and asked him to prepare the team for Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
With many World Cup winners still in the team, Italians were positive about their chances going into the opening match of Euro 2008 against Holland. They suffered a humbling 4-1 defeat to Marco van Bastens team and went out at the first knock-out stage after losing on penalties to Spain. Spains golden era had begun and Italy had been halted in their tracks. Donadonis consequent dismissal prompted the federation to re-appoint Lippi, who was given the near impossible job of following up his 2006 masterpiece at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Rather than invigorating the squad with fresh faces, Lippi remained faithful to the old guard. His logic made some sense but four years can be an eternity in football. Placing such enormous responsibility and expectation on ageing stars, such as the 36-year-old Cannavaro, didnt work. Dismal performances against Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand forced a reality check. Italy didnt win a game, finished last in a winnable group and went crashing out.
The national team had embarrassed themselves in South Africa and Serie A was not in a great state either. Italys most prestigious clubs had lost ground on their European counterparts. Juventus were still struggling after Calciopoli, though it wouldnt be long until their emphatic revival began. Milans troubles after their Scudetto in 2011 forced an exodus of major stars. Inter had won the European Cup (without an Italian in the starting line-up) but they failed to build on the success of Jos Mourinhos glorious treble-winning season; like the national team, Inter kept faith in the old guard for too long. Meanwhile, Napoli and Roma failed to make the step up in European competition.
After the debacle in South Africa, it took two years for shoots of revival to appear. Coached by former Fiorentina boss, Cesare Prandelli, Italy enjoyed a run to the final of Euro 2012, beating England and Germany along the way. The young and often misunderstood star striker, Mario Balotelli, tormented Joachim Lws Germany team, scoring two goals and flexing his muscles (literally) for the world to see. Balotellis exploits in his first major tournament breathed new life into the Azzurri. To their dismay, Italy once again ran into Spain, and were comfortably beaten in the final. But there was no doubting that the national side had progressed under Prandelli.
A year later, there was further cause for optimism at the Uefa U21 European Championship in Israel. Inspired by coach Devis Mangia, a talented group containing Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Alessandro Florenzi, Manolo Gabbiadini and one of the worlds best midfield technicians, Marco Verratti, made it to the final. But, once again, they were beaten by Spain.
By the time the 2014 World Cup arrived, Italy appeared to be on the right track. Prandelli brought rising stars such as Verratti, Insigne and Immobile into the squad, while still keeping his faith in elder statesmen Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi. Expectations before the tournament were predictably mixed. Hearts were set on a renaissance but minds forecasted further heartache. These doubts were temporarily vanquished after a 2-1 victory over England in their opening game but, just like four year before, the wheels fell off against the teams they had expected to beat. Italy lost to Costa Rica and Uruguay without scoring a goal in either game. Consecutive group stage exits provoked plenty of soul searching and, once again, a change of coach.
Prandelli resigned and in stepped Antonio Conte, the coach who had masterminded Juves return to the summit of Italian football, winning three consecutive league titles. Recognised around Europe as a meticulous man-manager, Contes tactical insight was exactly what Italy needed. The fiery and irrepressible winner changed the landscape of the team.
Although the talent in his squad for Euro 2016 was questioned at every turn, Conte was not perturbed. He wanted 23 warriors who would suffer for one another and thats exactly what he selected. The squad embraced his philosophy, including the inexperienced Emanuele Giaccherini, Federico Bernardeschi and Mattia De Sciglio. After cathartic victories against Belgium and most significantly, Spain, Italys spirited efforts fell short in the quarter-finals, where they lost to world champions Germany on penalties. But Contes men won considerable praise and, perhaps more importantly, restored Italian pride.