So much of what this Italy team has done at Euro 2016 has been unpredictable and involved proving some folks wrong. So when Leonardo Bonucci stepped up to the penalty spot to score what was the game-tying goal, it kinda seemed fitting. "Here's Italy just doing a total Italy kind of thing," was the summation of my thoughts. A central defender taking an incredibly crucial penalty — certainly against the grain, but also so very fitting of what has gone on this tournament.
At that moment, you thought that maybe, just maybe this squad had another magical moment in them at Euro 2016. They had eliminated the defending European champions, so why not the current World Cup holders, right? It only made sense.
But, as it turned out, a center back taking a near-perfect penalty kick was far from the most unique thing to happen Saturday night in Bordeaux. There was 120 minutes of game time played, with things still even at 1-1. Then came the penalty shootout, which had as many utterly hilarious moments as ones that helped each team win. We won't get to talk much about Italy for a couple of months now, but that's not because of us choosing to do so after a terrible showing on the big tournament stage.
No, you will not see a disgruntled Italian writing this post. Disappointed with the result? Yes. Disappointed with the team? No. As much as watching Italy take some of those penalties frustrated the living hell out of everybody because of their sheer stupidity, they far surpassed my expectations. And I'm not the only one saying that as the hours go by after Germany scored the game-winning penalty.
This team overachieved. You can scream "But this IS Italy, you idiot!!" if you really want. But it's not like this Italy squad was built with talent galore and options to do damage wherever you looked on the roster. We certainly criticized Italy for a good number of things since Antonio Conte took over as manager. That's especially true when it came to who he decided to bring with him to Euro 2016. Some of that had to due with injuries — namely Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti. Others had to do with the fact that overall quality of talent in Italy just isn't what it's been in decades prior. Nothing you can really do about either, but still the initial reaction to this Italy squad was one of "MEH!!!" rather than unbridled optimism.
What it did have — and yes, talking about this in the past tense is stupid — was a world-class manager who knew exactly how to play his hand. And as much as teams knew that was going to be the way Conte set things up, Italy's opposition still had more than just a little trouble trying to break them down.
I loved Prandelli. He tried to be different &I admire him. But there's something beautiful about watching Italy win in a way so... Italian.— Paolo Bandini (@Paolo_Bandini) June 27, 2016
And that was part of the fun of watching this Italy team over the course of the tournament run. As much as Conte and his team mucked things up and played a physical brand of football rather than one that was appealing on the eye of fans and pundits alike. Just see how they played against Germany on Saturday as the final example of that. It wasn't so much about Italy dominating the opponent like what happened against Spain, but Conte's side totally threw Germany off its game.
What Italy had that it lacked in the previous tournaments not named Euro 2012? This was a team, not just an assembly of talent that was successful because they had better players. Conte had this Italy united as one, and because of the downturn in talent, that's what they needed to do to be successful.
Gigi Buffon and BBC played about as well as Conte could have hoped. The onus was put on them to produce and that's exactly what they did. They fed into the stereotype about Italy being a defense-first kind of team, but it would have been idiotic to think that Italy should have approached these games any other ways.
It worked. And it was just so Italy along the way.
Of course, things will change now. Conte is off to London to hang out with John Terry and spend Roman Abramovich's money this summer. Giampiero Ventura is already in position to take over for Conte, but who knows what kind of vision he will have. (We're just going to have to wait to figure out that one, folks.)Saturday was, unfortunately, the last time we've seen Andrea Barzagli in an Italian national team jersey, with his shoes being incredibly massive ones to try and fill.
There is change coming to the Azzurri. Probably a good bit of uncertainty, too.
We will see Buffon sing the national anthem at the top of his lungs again before his career comes to an end. We will see Leonardo Bonucci launching passes over the top of the opposing defense again. But this team had its own kind of uniqueness to it that made it so easy to appreciate. They made it to the quarterfinals, could have gone even further, and that was the fun part of it all.
So, thank you, Italy for being a team we could truly believe rather than one that was doomed after two group stage games. That sure was an eventful couple of weeks, but one that made us proud to root for this team once more.