Italy are still the most successful Under-21 team in Europe, with five European titles won between 1992 and 2004. However, in recent years the Azzurrini (little Azzurri) suffered a mini-slump, that ended in 2010 in a disappointing defeat against Belarus in a playoff for the 2011 European Under-21 Championship.
Two years later though, Italy are back on track. It took the appointment of 38-year-old coach Devis Mangia to make the Azzurrini competitive again and now there is hope that this summer’s European Under-21 Championship could be the bright spot in the otherwise dull sky that represents the decline of Italian football. Inside Futbol went to speak to Mangia about the upcoming tournament in Israel.
“Italian football is not living its best moment, there’s no doubt about it”, Mangia, who counts Palermo amongst his former clubs, explained. “However, I have always liked to see the glass half full. We have a lot of talented young players, who technically and tactically speaking can be amongst the best. We should start from here to close the gap with countries like Spain or Germany.”
Both Spain and Germany are countries in which it is easier for a young player to become a regular in a top flight side. Something Mangia feels Italy must look at as well. “It’s a philosophy we must learn to follow. At the start of last season it seemed something was changing in Serie A, however it didn’t last for long. Two months ago only Manolo Gabbiadini from among my players was a regular at a Serie A club. Others were regulars too, but in Serie B.”
But Mangia is not looking for excuses, promising his team are not heading to Israel for a holiday in the warm and refreshing Mediterranean sun. “I expect the players who didn’t play regularly with their team to be more alive and kicking than ever”, he stressed, pointing out he is certain of his squad’s quality. “Our strength is being a team. We come to Israel to go as far as possible of course. In my opinion though, the most important thing is that Italy are back amongst the best Under-21 teams in Europe.”
Mangia made his debut as Italy’s coach on 15th August 2012 with an impressive 3-0 away win against Holland. “Since the beginning I have had a good feeling with this group. We’ve worked well together and I have always seen a positive attitude in every player. If they had problems with their clubs, they left them outside the door. This was important for me, because that means they feel they belong to a group. Training and playing is a pleasure, not just a duty.”
Once in Israel, what should Italy’s goal be? Mangia is aiming for a “good tournament”. “We had a very positive qualifying round, managing seven wins from eight games. Then we beat a tough Sweden team in the playoff. Now our opponents are stronger, but we have all the qualities we need to have a good tournament.”
Surviving the group stage does not seem an impossible task for Italy, considering that Spain, Germany and Holland are all in Group B; Mangia’s men are in Group A, alongside England, Israel and Norway. But the coach is taking nothing for granted, talking up the opposition. “Every team in Israel are competitive and could win the title”, he explains. “I don’t consider our group easier than the other. Everybody knows the qualities of England, that in recent years have always been able to keep their performance level high. And we should not make the mistake of underestimating Norway and Israel. Norway defeated France in the playoff. We should not forget that the French were considered one of the most talented teams in Europe; just think of players like Raphael Varane, Alexandre Lacazette or Remy Cabella.”
Israel look every inch the tournament minnow, but the Italian tactician feels that they will reap the rewards of hosting the event. “They are a solid team, well organised and full of enthusiasm”, insisted Mangia. “This European Championship is the first big competition organised in Israel, so I expect they will try to go beyond their limits to show their best at this historic event.”
The event being handed to Israel in the first place provoked controversy, with many calling for the country to be stripped of hosting the European Under-21 Championship. Mangia though will not be drawn on that. “I am focusing only on football. The only thing I can say is that there is a lot of curiosity amongst my players to play in this fascinating land that mixes many cultures.”
On the pitch, Spain clearly remain the team to beat. “As defending champions, Spain are of course the favourites”, the Italian coach accepted. “They are working well both in developing players and playing nice football. Moreover, they have players with a lot of international experience. That’s the same for Holland, with three or four players who have already been capped by the senior side. As I said before, it will be a very competitive tournament.”
Italy cannot count on AC Milan starlets Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio, the pair being selected by coach Cesare Prandelli for the country’s senior team, but Paris Saint-Germain midfield maestro Marco Verratti will be in Israel. “Anyway, our team is competitive”, insists Mangia. “Of course, Italy’s first team is above the Under-21s. We all work for it and any player who could be useful to coach Prandelli has to join his team. Both De Sciglio and El Shaarawy have a real chance of playing in Brazil at the Confederations Cup.”
Mangia could have used the pecking order to call up a player from the Under-19 squad, but in the end chose not to. “Yes, Domenico Berardi, a 1994-born striker who had an outstanding season in Serie B with Sassuolo. However, his case was a little bit different. Italy’s Under-19s will soon play for qualification for the European Championship and I thought Berardi could be more useful on the pitch in the Under-19 starting eleven than sat beside me on the bench in Israel. Within the federation all of the coaches work with deep respect for each other.”
The coach’s trademark is a 4-4-2 attacking system reminiscent of the legendary Arrigo Sacchi, a man Mangia has had the pleasure of being praised by. “I first talked to him when I was coaching the Varese Primavera team [Varese youth team, ed.] at the final eight of the Italian championships. He called me to congratulate me on the attractive football played by my team. I was enormously pleased.”
Mangia's attractive style of football is sure to be on display in Israel. But how far will it take the Azzurrini? Only time will tell.