When did you first fall hopelessly in love with Italy, its national football team, and its players who cannot help but be very, very Italian?
For me it was early July 1982 as Paolo Rossi ruthlessly shot down a sumptuous Brazil under a blazing Catalonian sun. Twice the arch-assassin struck only for the Seleção to respond each time, their carnival fare all hazy and beautiful and thoroughly dreamy in technicolor.
Every pass was a work of art. Every action was executed with a stylish flourish. This being my first World Cup I was utterly smitten and wide-eyed, and I looked upon the good doctor Socrates and his swaggering band of brothers in awe. It was as if a spaceship had landed in my back yard and out from the craft emerged rock stars way cooler than any living thing or God imaginable.
Brazil had no answer to Rossi’s hat-trick goal though and while the villainous Juventus forward sent the opposition spinning into an identity crisis they have arguably never fully recovered from, at the back Claudio Gentile kicked the living crap out of Zico. His golden calves were raked remorselessly. The very second a masterpiece was created Gentile took a vicious swipe of a scalpel to it.
I learnt so much from that iconic match, life lessons that have served me well ever since. At school I was taught about fractions and what ignited best when hovered over a Bunsen burner but over the course of that hour and a half I discovered to my surprise that good guys don’t always win: that films had lied to me.
I realized that a classic, pared back kit design such as Italy’s in the early-eighties had the aesthetic power to make your heart physically ache. And most importantly – and please let my little daughter one day know this too – I acknowledged that beauty comes in so many different forms. From a balletic turn to a well-timed scythe from a moustachioed sociopath, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
A week later came the final, with Tardelli’s Scream as the midfielder celebrated Italy’s second by running in the general direction of nowhere while howling out lungfuls of angry ecstasy and you just know that the devil smiled when that one went in. I did too.
I had begun that summer supporting England, with players like Trevor Brooking and Mick Mills who resembled bucolic police constables who would tell you off for doing wheelies on the pavement. By the tournament’s end I was forza Azzurri all the way with a new-found appreciation of shithousery and bellissimo kits. I’ve never been the same since.
The intervening years saw a further World Cup triumph in 2006 along with an untold number of penalty shoot-out disasters including one in the final of 1994 to a Brazil now shorn of all their flamboyance. There’s been Franco Baresi and Paolo Mandini and Fabio Cannavaro; defenders who transcended their position, becoming other-worldly icons synonymous with class and consummate brilliance.
There’s been Toto Schillaci, the bastard child of Rossi, street-footballing his way to a Golden Boot. The wonderful Del Piero soared the spirits of planet Earth and let’s not forget of course the Divine Ponytail. It’s been quite a ride.
Yet I must confess that in recent years I have strayed a little from the peninsula. It was all getting a bit passe if truth be told and perhaps I had started taking for granted the tough-as-teak centre-backs and their grace under pressure as well as the tricky, usually tiny forwards slaloming for the sheer hell of it. The overwrought drama in defeat and maniacal response to glory. To all of this I still had a soft spot but only that. The love affair had waned.
Then Roberto Mancini came along – as sleek and sophisticated and as cool-as-f*** as any man has any right to be – and after three years of record-breaking magnificence it is an adoration reborn.
His extremely impressive Italian side, that are 33 games unbeaten going into Sunday’s Euro 2020, possess so many of the quintessential Italian traits and tropes of old they may as well be a tribute act.
— Italy ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@azzurri) July 6, 2021
At the back Chiellini and Bonucci have become Godfathers of catenaccio, the former chiseled from granite like Gentile before him; Bonucci capable of pinging crossfield passes on a lira but similarly hard as nails. You shall not pass and if you do, God help your Achilles tendons.
In midfield, Verratti and Barella sparkle in the good moments but devilment is never far away. Both too – and this matters – are masters of the finger purse, the gesture that has greeted the awarding of a foul against an Italian since Roman times.
Up front Lorenzo Insigne drifts in and out of games, by turns anonymous and an artisan. So exemplary is his touch and so innate is his vision you suspect he chooses when to astound rather than have fate decide it.
And above all else, naturally is that unified fight we have seen so often, that exhilarating sight of eleven thoroughbred shithouses going into battle with copious amounts of flair in their arsenal and a dagger down their sock.
As a child, the Italian national side taught me some valuable lessons that have held me in good stead. Now, as an adult I get to simply sit back and enjoy the show. It may be a show we’ve seen a thousand times before but when the roles are performed this well, who cares? Forza Mancini’s bellissimo Italia.