Italy look to restore national pride as they begin the defence of their Euro 2020 crown against England on Thursday in Naples.
Roberto Mancini’s appointment as manager in 2018 looked to have heralded a new era for the Azzurri – with his side embarking on a world record 37-game unbeaten run.
In the process Italy lifted the Henri Delaunay Cup at Wembley after winning a penalty shootout against England.
However, from the joy of European Championship glory came the crushing failure to qualify for a second successive World Cup finals.
Mancini’s rebuilding job so far has focused on promoting talented young players to play alongside established stars, with Nicolo Barella, Sandro Tonali, Nicolo Zaniolo and Giacomo Raspadori all making their debuts under the former Manchester City manager.
And while Giorgio Chiellini retired from international football last June, there are still plenty of other familiar names in an Italy side that will wear a special shirt at the Diego Maradona stadium in tribute to former striker Gianluca Vialli, who died in January aged 58.
Seven of the team that started against England in the final of Euro 2020 are in the squad although Mancini’s search for the perfect blend has seen him call up 102 players so far during his tenure.
The likes of Matteo Darmian and Alessio Romagnoli have returned after repeatedly being overlooked, while new faces include Argentina-born forward Mateo Retegui, who is currently on loan at Atletico Tigre from Boca Juniors.
With Federico Chiesa injured and a lack of attacking options at his disposal Mancini has already suggested that Retegui, 23, and Simone Pafundi, 17, are the new bright hopes.
“We’ve been following him [Retegui] for a long time. We didn’t think he would agree. But he immediately accepted [the call up] and can really improve. He’s a traditional classic centre forward, we have great faith in him,” Mancini said.
“We picked Pafundi and then all the others. He has incredible quality, and I want him to train with senior players, we believe in his quality. In my time, champions were playing at 17 in Serie A. I am hoping he can become an important player for the future of the national team.”
‘Italian football hasn’t been reborn’
Having presided over such a lengthy unbeaten run between October 2018 and October 2021, Mancini has now seen his side lose four of their previous 11 internationals over the past 12 months.
The 58-year-old’s biggest conundrum at present is how to rekindle “the magic” given his concerns over number of top-level Italian talent currently available to him for selection, saying he cannot just “invent new players”.
On the surface the presence of three Serie A clubs in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2006 would appear a big positive.
However, just nine of the 33 players to start the second legs of last-16 ties for Napoli, AC Milan and Inter Milan qualified to play for Italy.
“We can’t complain about it. This is the reality and we must do something different,” Mancini added.
“Italian football hasn’t been reborn… If there were 33 Italians on the pitch, maybe, even half of them being Italian would be enough. I must find players, have a long-term vision.
“If I see a player who can become important, I need to trust him even if he doesn’t have experience. We need to build something important and we are trying.
“I believe that phenomenal players emerge in South America, Argentina, and Brazil, where kids play in the streets. This doesn’t happen in Italy. This is a problem. It takes time [to develop players]. At this moment there aren’t [lots of] new talents in Italy.”
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