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Italy mourns as Mancini’s magic act is exposed

Missing the country's second World Cup in a row, Italy's European Championship victory last summer now appears like a blue mirage

Roberto Mancini reacts as Italy lose to North Macedonia (Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty)

The sublime irrelevance of sports can seldom have seemed more apparent. Eight months ago, Italy celebrated winning the European football championship after a penalty shoot-out at Wembley; today the Tifosi are in
mourning after virtually the same set of players were beaten in Palermo by
North Macedonia, and failed for the second time in a row to make it to the
World Cup.

We cannot weep with Italy while, on the same continent, Putin’s war rages on in Ukraine. We cannot ridicule Italians reducing head coach Roberto
Mancini from hero to harlot in less than a year without acknowledging that we all do this, all of the time.

Sport creates illusion. We now see that Mancini’s Italy was perhaps an improbable attempt to recreate the Azzurri, to cast off the catenaccio defence that bored opponents into submission and won World Cups and European club tournaments. He was an attacking player and, almost out of
nothing, he convinced Italy to pursue a more beautiful version of the game.

This, with a squad so palpably short on creativity, was almost a three-card
trick. Somehow Italy strung together a run of 37 unbeaten games (won 30, drawn 7, scored 93 conceded 12) that eclipsed the sequences that Brazil and
Spain enjoyed between 1993-96 and 2007-09 respectively.

Mancini was the new Renaissance Man, the Leonardo Da Vinci of the Italian national sport. And then, last weekend, he was the fall guy, the man whose addiction to the same group of players was somehow negligent to the point where the intelligentsia are calling for the four-year extension to the contract that he signed last summer to be torn up.

But that is football thinking. Fire the guy who changed the face of his nation, reach inside the magician’s bag and pull out the next rabbit. Just as irrational are the leaks suggesting that Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain should ignore whoever is on their list as the next fall guy (alias the next team manager) and give the suave Mancini a whole new setting to cut his cloth.

As escapism for real life, a different vision of what is going on all around us in Europe, this makes sense. Reading that “Mancini has destroyed our team”, as one scribe put it, is as irrational as praising him to the heights that the experts did eight months ago.

Blaming the coach for the failure of Ciro Immobile to strike for the Azzurri at a similar ratio to the way he does for Lazio also misses the point. Immobile is a triumph of effort and opportunism in that he made a career scoring goals in a faded Serie A, the Italian national league. He was dismissed as a failure in his youth by Juventus. He misfired abroad in Dortmund and Seville. He persevered through sheer effort over his lack of instinctive movement or fluency. And with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, those gnarled, effective defenders, reaching their late thirties, Mancini’s big apparent crime was to put the captain’s armband on the doggedly determined Immobile last week.

Everyone in the media, and in the TV studios especially could see better than “The Mister” that Mancini had grown too loyal to his Euro winners. He should, the critics said with hindsight, have unleashed Mario Balotelli on those Macedonians.

Mancini didn’t because he brought Balotelli, now 31, back into his training squad a few months ago. Balotelli, it was written, is now a transformed character, fully fit and knocking in goals in the Süper Lig in Turkey.

This might seem an impertinence because I am neither Italian nor Turkish, but I suspect that Mancini is a better judge than any of us about what Balotelli could or could not do for the Azzurri. Mancini managed him at Manchester City where the player’s volatility veered from goalscorer to all manner of fireworks on and off the pitch.

Mancini dared to try to remould Italy out of its guarded defensive history into something more appealing on the eye, and presumably more appetising for players to attempt. If they ultimately lacked the nous to put the ball in the net in more than 30 attempts against North Macedonia (and other games in qualifying rounds when they fired blanks), is that the fault of the coach who somehow guided them to be surprise European champions?

Immobile is no great Italian match-winner. He could never be a Riva or a Rossi… and certainly not the truly gifted Baggio, Del Piero or Totti. Italy have no one anything approaching their talents, and no one on the horizon is likely to eclipse old goalscoring records the way that Harry Kane is doing for England right now.

“Wembley last July was the best thing in my professional life,” said Mancini. “This is the biggest disappointment. Incredible things happen in football, and it just happened. But now is too soon to say what should happen to the coach.”

Chiellini spoke of destroyed spirit and a void that will remain with them. The federation, rightly, is asking for time to avoid knee-jerk reactions. But the media clamour is in full swing to replace Mancini with Fabio Cannavaro.

Imperious defender that he was, Cannavaro, now 48, is unemployed after leaving China, his only place of managerial experience. The pundits’ answer to that is to give him the job, supported by former national trainer Marcello Lippi, 73, as technical director.

Last summer’s euphoria was, it seems, a blue mirage.

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