Blog Written by Sebastian Fazio (@CalcioASRoma):
"This is the worst Italian team ever"
"Antonio Conte is ruining Italian football!"
"From Totti, Del Piero and Vieri to Pelle, Eder and Giaccherini"
"This team won't make it out of the group stages"
These are just some of the things people said about Italy going into Euro 2016. Never had there been so much negativity towards an Italian team in terms of what they could achieve. It's safe to say no one expected the Italians to do anything. Boy, were many wrong.
The tournament started against Belgium. Italy were looked at as the underdogs since Belgium had all these stars like Eden Hazard, Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bryune, Romelu Lukaku and the list goes on. Italy outside of BBC was also playing Giaccherini, Parolo, Eder and Candreva. Four guys who not too long ago were playing for Serie B side Cesena. At the 33rd minute of the match, Giaccherini popped one in to put Italy in front and from then, the dream began. Giaccherini became Giaccherinho. That goal stands out because it was the beginning of 23 men proving so many wrong.
Italy would go on to dominate the match and shut down Belgium's superstars while Graziano Pelle scored a second goal in the 90th minute to top off a great victory. Daniele De Rossi after the match said he had friends in Rome who said they'd bet their house Italy would lose versus Belgium, showing you what people thought of Italy going into the Euro. Still though many didn't want to bat an eye at Antonio Conte and Italy, still considering Spain, Belgium and heck even Croatia were better threats then the Italians.
But credit to Conte's squad, they knew this team was not what many thought it was. Next came Sweden, a tough match where Italy struggled to find a breakthrough. Many complained over Conte's trust in Eder throughout the match, calling him useless, saying Italy were playing with 10 men because of him. Cometh the hour, cometh Eder. 88th minute a beautiful Eder goal to send Italy into the next round topping the group of death, which many said Italy would 'struggle' in. 1st place with a game to spare.
Then came Ireland with Italy playing with no real meaning, losing 1-0. But there was a bigger fish to fry, as Spain was next up. And once again Italy were looked at as underdogs and were not favored, but ONCE AGAIN they proved many wrong. Completely taking the game to Spain. Disrupting the Spanish attack. At the 32nd minute Cheillini put Italy ahead and Gli Azzurri never looked back. Once again in the 90th it was Pelle smashing the ball home making it 2-0 to knock out Spain.
Antonio Conte put on a tactical master class that ended the Spanish Era and got sweet revenge for the Euro 2012 final loss. Beat Spain? Okay, here's Germany, probably the best national team on the planet. From the first minute to the last penalty kick, Italy-Germany was a very tactical and intense match. When Mesut Özil put Germany ahead it seemed Italy was done, not being able to create anything going forward for an equalizer. Then came the 78th minute, Italy wins a penalty that Bonucci puts home, every Italian erupts, the players on the field and on the bench completely lose it. Italy was back in it and not ready to quit. Unfortunately it was penalties that decided who went on and the Germans came out on top, ending a dream.
This Italian team would have died before giving up and the way they were eliminated shows that. Stefano Sturaro himself said he played Italy-Germany injured from 2nd half on. Pelle, Eder, Giaccherini and Parolo gave everything they had even if they ran out of steam after 120 minutes, they were still running at 100% even before the final whistle was blown. Though he missed his penalty and later apologized for it, Graziano Pelle deserves so much credit for his performances at the Euro. Many doubted him but he delivered and was a reason Italy went as far as they did. He was one of the best strikers at the Euro. Same with guys like Giaccherini, Parolo, Eder and De Sciglio. This game showed the belief and enthusiasm that these players and Antonio Conte brought back to a nation that really was dead following the 2014 World Cup. A bunch of 'nobodies' and the 'worst Italian team ever' proved the world wrong and in that that made their nation proud. Football is cruel and weird; Italy gave everything and deserved a lot more. Conte was always hit with the hardest obstacles. Italy topped their qualifying group yet still wasn't seeded in Pot 1 for the draw because of a stupid loss in a friendly, guaranteeing a hard group at the Euro but they overcame that with a first place finish. What are they rewarded with? The hardest route to the finals with Spain, Germany and then what would've been France. Meanwhile, Portugal finished 3rd place in the easiest group and have yet to win a game in 90 minutes yet are in the semifinals.
Conte always had to play with a disadvantage, whether it was the draw, injuries, lack of talent or the trust of fans and the media, yet he and his 23 players proved everyone wrong. And for that, I salute Conte and every player on this team for bringing joy back into Italian football. Italy's run at the Euro 2016 will always be memorable and it was a joy to watch, if you're Italian or not.