In the lead-up to UEFA EURO 2020, Italy centre-back Leonardo Bonucci made a statement that now sounds prophetic: “Italy’s star man is our group, as we don’t have outstanding individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo or Romelu Lukaku.”
The Azzurri will now face Lukaku – a familiar face in Serie A, of course – in the quarter-finals in Munich on Friday. Italy’s band of unlikely heroes are ready to further make their mark on this tournament.
The 27-year-old Napoli right-back has not looked back since replacing the injured Alessandro Florenzi in the opening game against Turkey. Only four years ago, he was still playing in Serie C with Matera. “It’s kind of weird thinking back on it,” he told EURO2020.com. “I’ve had an important journey getting here. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I’m really satisfied now, and I’m enjoying this amazing journey.”
A striker when he was growing up in Tuscany, he was nicknamed ‘Batigol’ after the former Fiorentina striker Gabriel Batistuta. However, he has no special celebrations planned should he find the net at EURO. “I don’t know how I will react,” he said. “I will live in the moment, but it would be something unique. Let’s hope that moment comes soon.”
The 28-year-old is another late bloomer. A former attacking midfielder, Spinazzola’s career changed completely when he started to play as a left-back for Perugia in 2015/16. After two subsequent seasons with Atalanta, he joined Juventus but failed to make an impact and featured only ten times in Serie A for the Bianconeri . A superb 2020/21 campaign with Roma, however, convinced Roberto Mancini that he should be first choice on the left flank.
Two Star of the Match performances later, Spinazzola is now considered one of Mancini’s greatest weapons. His threat comes largely thanks to his electric speed – indeed he clocked the fastest sprint of the entire group stage. “If I wasn’t fast enough, I wouldn’t be playing,” he told us with a big smile. “The coach transmits tranquillity and self-esteem to everyone; he includes everyone, even those in the stands. This is our main strength.”
The Sassuolo midfielder started the first two games only because Marco Verratti was injured, but his performances – including two fantastic goals against Switzerland – were impressive enough to give Mancini a real selection headache.
“There was a lot of work behind this performance,” Locatelli said after the Switzerland game. “I am proud, I am part of a fantastic group and I am happy to be here.”
The 23-year-old made a very promising start to his career with AC Milan but, after something of a dip, has recently started to shine at Sassuolo, the club he joined in 2018. He only made his senior Italy debut last September but must now be in contention for a start against Belgium.
The 24-year-old Atalanta midfielder is the biggest surprise of all. He is only here at all because Stefano Sensi was forced to withdraw from the squad with an injury just ahead of the opening game against Turkey. Pessina not only scored the only goal of the game against Wales in the group stage, he also struck Italy’s decisive second in the extra-time win against Austria in the last 16.
Pessina, who defines himself as “a student who also plays football”, is a lover of art and literature in particular. He admits that he came close to quitting football when struggling down in Serie C back in 2016.
“You have seen what this group is capable of, this team can achieve so much,” he told EURO2020.com after his goal against Austria. “Fede [Federico Chiesa] and I, who both came off the bench, made the most of the build-up play from the team, and then applied the finish. But we have all been good, from one to 11; that’s the strength of our team.”
When Pessina was asked to compare this national team to a famous painting, he opted for Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Almond Blossom.’ These Azzurri heroes are certainly beginning to come into full flower.