Our Italian-language reporter Paolo Menicucci was sceptical about the Azzurri's chances until a day at Coverciano in May changed his mind – and argues their run in France should be celebrated.
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"Everything we have done will be forgotten in a few years. Nobody will remember this national team which gave absolutely everything."
Listening to Andrea Barzagli's tearful words after Italy's penalty shoot-out defeat by Germany on Saturday night felt like a punch in the stomach.
It hurt especially because the veteran centre-back is probably right. Simone Zaza and Graziano Pellè's spot-kick mishaps will likely obscure what was otherwise a wonderful campaign from the Azzurri. That would be wrong, though, because Italy had a great tournament despite coming up one penalty short of the world champions in Bordeaux.
I admit I was very sceptical about this team two or three months ago, particularly since Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio's injuries deprived Italy of two key midfielders. In May, however, I slowly started to revise my opinion.
We were in Coverciano to speak to Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. It was a long day for the players who were posing for official photos for the finals. The interviews, initially scheduled for the morning, were postponed until late afternoon.
When an exhausted Bonucci finally arrived after training under Antonio Conte, the defender was out of breath. "He is making you work hard, isn't he?" I said with a smile. "You cannot imagine how much," Bonucci replied.
I have seen many training sessions and interviewed various Italy players since then and I can confirm that the level never diminished. Increasingly I understood my pessimism was ill-founded. This group of players were really special and found a way to push themselves beyond their limits.
"We just liked spending time together," sighed Barzagli yesterday. And it was obvious to everybody at their Montpellier training centre.
Then came the convincing Group E victory over Belgium on matchday one, with Italy – unsurprisingly for me – covering more distance than any other side in the tournament. Emanuele Giaccherini's fine goal prefigured an emotional celebration involving the entire squad when Pellè hit the second in added time.
A success against Sweden followed before the loss to the Republic of Ireland when first place in the group was already secured. The masterpiece, however, was the 2-0 round of 16 triumph over Spain when the Azzurri simply outplayed the reigning champions despite missing another key player in Antonio Candreva.
Could it get more difficult than that? Yes. World champions Germany with Daniele De Rossi (injured) and Thiago Motta (suspended) also absent.
Yet Conte's men again fought like lions. Gianluigi Buffon conceded for the first time in France but then kept his team alive with an incredible save from Mario Gomez. And Italy summoned the strength to equalise and force penalties.
The shoot-out ended with Germany rejoicing and Buffon crying on the pitch. One of the best goalkeepers of all time, the 38-year-old was desperately hoping for a different EURO adieu.
Barzagli is right. In a few years only a few people will remember the feats of this Italy team – perhaps lacking the talent of other Azzurri sides of the past but second to none in terms of heart and determination. I certainly will.