Roberto Mancini has never been content to just take part. Aged nine, he became so frustrated at losing a table tennis game that he threw a bat at his cousin’s head. At 24, he was part of a Sampdoria side that won Serie A for the first time in the club’s history, but Mancini was already looking beyond. That title-winning season had barely begun when he started telling teammates they should aim to reach the Intercontinental Cup.
Samp fell one step short of realising his ambition, losing to Barcelona in extra time of the 1992 European Cup final. Mancini’s competitive flame, though, never dimmed. After he was appointed Italy manager in 2018, he stated his intention to “be a good coach and take the national team back to the top of the world”.
It seemed a distant prospect. The Azzurri were still reeling from their first failure to qualify for a World Cup in 60 years. Giampiero Ventura had been fired as manager immediately after their play-off defeat to Sweden, yet left behind only a void. No replacement was named for three months, at which point the under-21s coach, Luigi Di Biagio, had to be promoted to a caretaker role.
Mancini finally replaced him in May 2018, inheriting a team with none of the certainties of Italy’s recent past. Giorgio Chiellini, Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi had all declared their international retirement, though the first would eventually change his mind.
Perhaps, in some sense, Mancini was fortunate to arrive when he did, his choices simplified by no longer needing to weigh up the value of experience against the opportunity to give fresh faces a chance. He embraced the moment, distributing call-ups widely. Nicolò Zaniolo and Sandro Tonali were each part of an Italy squad before they made their Serie A debuts.
The speed with which Mancini fashioned a successful team out of unfamiliar components was astonishing. His first Nations League campaign began with a draw against Poland and defeat to Portugal in September 2018, but Italy have not lost again since.
Their unbeaten run extends to 27 matches. Italy won all 10 of their Euro 2020 qualifiers – the first time they had posted a perfect record in qualifying for any major competition – scoring 37 goals and conceding just four. They finished top of their 2020-21 Nations League group, ahead of the Netherlands, and have collected maximum points from three World Cup qualifiers so far as well.
A team identity was built along the way, formed around the players available to Mancini instead of imposed upon them. A midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolò Barella came together organically, three superior talents who complement each other: one to organise the play, another to carry the fight to opponents and a third to break the lines.
Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa offer natural width, which the manager embraced with a 4-3-3 that becomes a 3-2-4-1 in possession, with one full-back pushing on. Although the first-choice XI contains its share of veterans, from Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at centre-back to Ciro Immobile up front, there is a depth of young supporting talent that has brought with it an enthusiastic energy that Italy had not known for some time.
Mancini has his favourites. He played alongside Chiesa’s father at Sampdoria and has confessed: “Every now and then I stop and watch [Federico], because with him I get to travel through time. He is identical to Enrico, the same feints, the same acceleration, such a similar shot.”
Yet he can also share the credit for the younger Chiesa delivering on his potential. The player is markedly more effective now than he was in 2018, having added ruthlessness to his technical quality. Mancini had foreseen it, describing him as “the classic talent who could explode at any moment”.
Above all, though, Mancini’s greatest success has been to construct a group among which more than the first XI feel involved. In another era, the injury suffered by Verratti in the buildup to this tournament would have been a disaster, but this Italy know Manuel Locatelli can slot in until he returns, having picked up four caps already this calendar year. Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini would be just as easy a choice, having started a pair of World Cup qualifying wins in March.
How much have Mancini’s experiences as a player influenced his approach to managing the national team? His greatest footballing regret is that he never played at a World Cup. He was called up in 1990 but Azeglio Vicini never put him on the pitch.
His failure to appear in another tournament was the result of his own poor choices. He was excluded in 1986 because he never apologised to the manager, Enzo Bearzot, after staying out all night on an American tour. He opted out of the 1994 World Cup in a fit of pique after Arrigo Sacchi played him for only 45 minutes of a friendly for which Roberto Baggio – the man keeping him out of the starting XI most of the time – was absent.
Even before Mancini had been appointed Italy manager, he spoke openly in interviews of his desire to make up for lost time. “I have a dream,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport in January 2018. “I want to win as a coach the thing that I did not win as a footballer: a World Cup.”
Mancini is a more mellow character than he used to be, capable of circumspection in a way that he perhaps was not in 2008, when he responded to a Champions League defeat to Liverpool by prematurely and disruptively announcing his intention to leave his position as Inter manager at the end of the season. But that does not mean his motivations have changed.
He has won league titles as a manager in Italy and England, yet those achievements have been overshadowed for many onlookers by the greater successes of the men who followed him: José Mourinho raising Inter to the treble and Pep Guardiola leading Manchester City to three Premier League titles in four years.
Even to take Italy to the latter stages of this summer’s tournament would be a remarkable feat, given the mess he inherited. Mancini, though, has only one target in mind. “The objective now is to spend the summer in my Portonovo [a seaside town close to where he grew up],” he told the Italian edition of GQ recently, “signing autographs as a champion manager.”