By Sean Sedacca
A strange mood prevailed the day after Italy’s elimination from the Euro 2016 tournament. On the one side there was extreme sadness that the fantastic run of form and enthusiasm had come to a painful end, while juxtaposed was a sense of hilarity over the way in which the team had been eliminated.
It wasn’t just that they had shockingly missed three out of five penalties, it was that two of them involved such ridiculous antics that they instantly became a nationwide punchline. But in a way the schizophrenic reaction was fitting, as this was a tournament where nothing seemed to play out as expected.
Coach Antonio Conte was in tears as he told the media that the loss hurt even more the day after, and the assembled journalists responded by giving him a rousing ovation to show their appreciation for his efforts. Mind you, this is the coach that was harshly criticized by Italian media prior to the tournament for having lined up his move to Chelsea well before play began, with accusations that he would be apathetic and uninterested in the national team’s performance. Italy was also lackluster in their friendly matches prior to the tournament, and Conte’s player selection was unanimously derided by fans and experts alike. And yet there they were, parting ways like two young lovers after a short but passionate summer romance.
Speaking of that player selection, once it was clear that Thiago Motta would at least be relegated to the bench, all of the negativity was directed toward starting forwards Graziano Pelle and Eder. Light-years away from their namesakes that played for Brazil decades ago, they were viewed as two players that were out of form and unlikely to even crack the starting eleven on a strong Serie A side. But ninety minutes against Belgium was all it took to get the pendulum of opinion swinging quickly in the other direction, and by the time the final whistle blew in their victory over Spain, the pair were seen as indispensable up front. That feeling hadn’t changed after the loss to Germany, either, but Pelle was unfortunately being talked about for an entirely different reason.
For those that may have missed it (or simply aren’t up to snuff on their Italian soccer hand gestures), Pelle was giving Manuel Neuer the sign for the “cucchiaio” (spoon) just before taking his shot. The spoon is the term the Italians use to refer to a cheeky chip shot straight into the center of the goal as the keeper dives out of the way, and it was made famous by Francesco Totti in the Euro 2000 tournament during their shootout against Holland. Part of the legend came from the fact that Totti was caught by television cameras telling his teammates he was going to do the cucchiaio before shooting, and of course that meant he needed the guts to go through with it. This explains why Pelle went out of his way to make sure Neuer saw the gesture, but nothing can explain the way he actually took his shot.
— Eric Krakauer (@bigsoccerheadNY) July 2, 2016
It didn’t end with the taunt that backfired in Pelle’s face, however. His compatriot, Simone Zaza, subbed into the game in the 120th minute specifically to take a penalty and having failed to even touch the ball prior to shooting, decided to take a rather strange and preposterous run up to the ball before blasting it well over the net. Whether his intention was to flaunt the new rules against hesitating or not we can’t be sure, but what is for certain is that his awkward antics will be the punchline of jokes and memes for years to come. And so you had Italian fans left simultaneously beleaguered and bewildered. How could they lose to Germany? How could they miss three penalty kicks from the first five? How could they miss two of them like that?
Oh well, they really weren’t supposed to be there anyway. This mindset is probably what motivated a small crowd to gather at Malpensa airport and give the team an enthusiastic greeting as they returned to Italy. They had overachieved, after all, and they had played with heart. Tremendous heart the likes of which the Azzurri haven’t shown since 2006. And that, more than any young player, will be the fundamental building block for the team going forward. Lazio’s Marco Parolo summed it up by saying, “Conte will leave us with a legacy that we must take full advantage of. We have to keep going with the same intensity and the same spirit that we showed during these games.”
Indeed, the most significant aspect of Italy’s Euro 2016 performance is what it means for the future. Yes, they were missing one of their brightest young stars in Marco Verratti, and key players like Claudio Marchisio, Antonio Candreva and Daniele De Rossi were unavailable or limited due to injury, but Conte managed to show both the team and the country that Italy can find other ways to win. They no longer have to rely solely on star power, or on a tactical superiority that can simply overwhelm the greater work ethic of a less decorated opponent. They can field eleven competent Serie A players whose absolute maximum effort and sacrifice is enough to easily dispatch eleven less skilled players from Sweden working just as hard, or eleven higher skilled players from Belgium or Spain that aren’t willing to work as hard. It could even allow them to keep pace with the reigning world champions who are highly skilled and working at the same rate.
So this is Italy’s lesson to be learned from Euro 2016. This is Conte’s legacy. Going forward they don’t need to obsess as much over player selection and a perceived dearth of superstar talent. They don’t need to fear the world’s top teams that are enjoying a generation of strong players in their prime. They are Italy. They have four stars on their chest for a reason. If they remember to back up their innate greatness with humble hard work, they can play with any team in the world. Grazie Antonio. Grazie Ragazzi. Oh, and thank you Pelle and Zaza for the laughs.
Follow Sean Sedacca on Twitter @lazialeany