The EURO 2020-winning coach reveals how Italy made it back to the top after a disappointing few years.
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"This is a group that has never lost heart, even in difficult times, supporting each other and putting the interest of the team before the individual. If we are where we are today, it's not only because of an extra penalty scored. It's because we have been transformed by our friendship – one of the most beautiful feelings in life."
The words, not spoken by Roberto Mancini but by his captain, Giorgio Chiellini, reflect the team spirit built by a coach who took the baton at a delicate moment in the wake of Italy's historic failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Victory at EURO 2000 also reaffirmed the notion that 'team spirit' has the same relevance in the team behind the team as among the players themselves. Mancini embarked on his renaissance project with the support of former team-mates such as Alberico Evani, Fausto Salsano, Giulio Nucciari and Angelo Gregucci, with his striking partner in the great Sampdoria team of the '90s, Gianluca Vialli, as head of delegation. Clips of their touchline celebrations bear witness to the passion and commitment that unites them.
How important was team spirit? And what did you do to create it?
They did well because they formed a good group of guys – great guys first and foremost, which was essential. Plus, the more experienced players helped the younger players to integrate. That was also quite simple, and they deserve a lot of credit for creating a group that really wanted to play good football. It's not that I felt everything would be easy because there are always difficulties, but we made it. We were together for 50 days, which was tough, but I have to say that it all went fast. That's a sign that the guys got on well with each other.
You also implemented a more positive style, focused on attacking. How difficult was it to do this after the disappointment of 2018?
It was actually quite simple, because I found players who wanted to do something special. They were enthusiastic about the project because it was something different for them. They were curious to see what we Italians could do. Obviously it took some time, but not that much. Whenever we got to see each other, it went well because they got something special out of it.
Italy was able to adapt tactically to different opponents. As you don't work with the players as frequently as you would at club level, how did you manage to prepare different tactical systems?
It was a group effort. We tried to work on different ways of playing as well as the physical fitness side. We tried to improve our qualities as individuals and as a team. We succeeded, all together – us, the staff, and the players, because they showed a lot of desire.
How important was it for the group that you could make five or six substitutions?
I think it was important for everyone because the players had all just come off the end of an exhausting season, so I think it was a very good thing. We'd been working as a group for a long time and the guys who came off the bench knew what to do. Indeed, I have to say that whenever they came on, they gave something more, because when a tired player came off, a fresh player came on with a desire to improve the team – and that's not always the case. I have to say they were excellent, everyone, every time – in each game, those who came on did something special. It's important that the identity of the team remains the same even when we change three or four players. They all know what to do and the end product does not change.
Everybody sets out to win. But at what point did you think you could go all the way?
I always believed it was possible to win – I believed it from day one. But there are lots of other factors as well. We knew what we were doing, even during the qualification phase, and we believed it was possible to do something special. The teams who played in the EURO were all very strong and they all wanted to win, so there was a good balance. I think at the moment there are many strong teams in Europe who could have won the EURO and who could win the World Cup. Winning wasn't a simple task.
What were the key moments?
We really believed in what we had done in the lead-up to the EURO but, of course, the important – crucial – match was the first. In a knockout competition, the first is always the most difficult. But then when you settle into it, it becomes different.
Maybe the performance against Belgium showed your confidence and physical condition?
I think that was a very important match. The final against England was a great match, too. We suffered a bit more against Spain, because they played probably their best match of the whole tournament and they are a very strong team. I think that, from the round of 16 onwards, they were all great matches. There are some games when you have to suffer. Spain surprised us at the start by deciding to play without a striker. They caused us a lot of trouble and we had a hard time because we didn't have much of the ball.
Is there a lesson that EURO 2020 taught you?
That you never give up until the end. It's not something we learned at EURO 2020, but it's something that was confirmed there. When you play you should always believe in your abilities and your qualities, because every match starts 0-0, and then you never give up for any reason because in today's football, you can always make a comeback.
Did you see any tactical trends that could be useful in coach education?
I think every coach played to attack and to win, so this is the trend to follow. Because at a European level, if you follow this trend and have quality players, you can win. You can change the formation or the way you play, but in the end, you have the pitch and 11 players. So it comes down to mentality and desire to win – even if you're giving more opportunities to the opponent by giving them more space. I believe this is the foundation of it all.