David Shonfield: How Italy lurched from humiliation to ecstasy at The Legendary Wembley

David Shonfield: How Italy lurched from humiliation to ecstasy at The Legendary Wembley

HOME IN ROME: Italy players parade with the Euro 2020 trophy on a double decker bus through the streets of Rome after their victory over England in Wembley. Italy recovered from a football slump a few years ago and Gerry Cox believes England can do the same in the World Cup. Picture: Vincenzo Pinto

Every football nation goes through its nights of ecstasy and nights where it plumbs the depths.

For Italy, those depths were reached on a bitter November evening in Milan just four years ago when the Azzurri failed to qualify for the World Cup finals for only the second time.

As a national humiliation, it was comparable only to their 1-0 defeat against North Korea that knocked them out of the 1966 World Cup in England.

Their veterans, including Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, immediately quit the side. The manager Gian Piero Ventura was sacked two days later, the head of the Italian football federation followed him out of the door. And the gloom threatened to become even deeper over the next year when the team only managed a single win, against Saudi Arabia in Switzerland.

So for Italy to then put together its longest ever unbeaten run, culminating in two consecutive shoot-out victories at Wembley to become European Champions, is beyond the realm of dreams. It is delirium.

Up and down the country — from the Alps to Sicily, to quote the Italian national anthem — there is a general sense of fulfillment.

It is not the triumphalism of the 2006 World Cup, when the team was greeted by an enormous rally in the Circus Maximus in Rome, with wild scenes that might have been devised by a Hollywood director. The feeling is more like mission accomplished. A team without stars, and with a common sense of purpose, has succeeded in pulling the country together, much like the initial response to the Covid pandemic did 16 months ago, when people confined to their homes sang songs to each other to establish a spirit of collective resistance.

“This is not a day for great speeches,” said Italian president Sergio Mattarella yesterday, greeting the players after their return from London. “It is a day for applause, gratitude and congratulations. I am not a big football pundit, but this was a result which went well beyond a win on penalties because you had two heavy handicaps: playing in your opponents’ backyard, in that stadium, with those fans, and then being caught cold with a goal that might have put anyone on their knees.”

Mattarella, like his predecessor Sandro Pertini, president when Italy won the World Cup in 1982, is someone who inspires a lot of affection. Pertini was a former leader of the Italian Resistance, Mattarella’s brother was murdered by the mafia in 1980 while serving as president of the regional government of Sicily.

Memories of 1982 seem especially relevant because Pertini was someone who managed to hold the country together during the worst period of terrorism, and Mattarella has achieved something similar in the face of the pandemic and the constant squabbling and political manoeuvring inside the government.

Beating the English in London is always symbolic for Italy, because of the legacy of the Battle of Highbury in 1934, when the newly crowned world champions lost a brutal game after being reduced to 10 men in the first 15 minutes. Predictably the English papers billed that match as the “real” World Cup final. Wembley itself is always The Legendary Wembley for the Italian media, and Sunday’s drama is already part of the legend.

“I am not sorry for myself but for all of Italian football,” said Gigi Buffon on that night four years ago. “We failed at something which also means something on a social level.”

This win seems similar. It’s easy to overdo the hyperbole when it comes to sport: after all, football is only a game. This was not a match about Brexit — although the British government would no doubt have claimed it as such had the result gone the other way.

But if all goes well it will be a match that heralds a return to some sort of normality right across Europe, although that is still touch and go in many countries. At any rate in Italy, it definitely feels like part of a healing process.

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