Roberto Mancini had a mission. “I have a dream, to win as national coach what I couldn’t win as a player — a World Cup,” he said before he was even appointed Italy manager. An unused player in the 1990 World Cup, he fell out with Arrigo Sacchi before the 1994 tournament. Management afforded him a redemptive arc.
Four years later, Mancini remained as ambitious. “Our aim is to win the World Cup,” he said. Then Italy faced North Macedonia, a shot count of 32-4 counting for little in a shock, and they had not even qualified for the World Cup. It might be seen as the hubristic humbling of Mancini, a man who overlooked the footballing cliché of taking each game as it comes. The next game was North Macedonia in a play-off, not Brazil in a World Cup final. Italy lost.
So this is a historic first. In the days of 32-team World Cups, there is no parallel of such a major and sizeable footballing nation missing one tournament, let alone two in a row. Perhaps it casts Italy’s Euro 2020 win in a different light, but while they emulated Greece’s 2004 winners, who then failed to qualify for the subsequent World Cup, a 37-game unbeaten run suggested it was less a freakish triumph than a sign of a more meaningful revival.
Now they play a fifth game in England in 12 months. A tale can be told across them. The first was the Euro 2020 last-16 tie against Austria, won with the aid of managerial intervention: Mancini seemed to possess a golden touch with relatively undistinguished players and Atalanta’s Matteo Pessina got what proved the decisive goal. Then came the semi-final and final, the penalty shootout triumphs that owed much to Gianluigi Donnarumma but which seemed to show Italy’s winning mentality.