Luciano Spalletti leads Italy into a symbolic debut on Saturday as the Azzurri travel to North Macedonia in Euro 2024 qualifying, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of World Cup disaster.
Italy has been going through something of an identity crisis for nearly two decades, unsure of its position in the global game and no longer feared as in decades past.
It was Group C opponents North Macedonia, which sparked the most recent bout of self-reflection by dumping Italy out of the last World Cup in last year’s qualifying play-offs.
That single-goal disaster in Palermo didn’t just leave Italy out of a second straight World Cup, it also wiped out the enormous amount of goodwill earned from triumph at the last Euro which made national heroes of the team and Spalletti’s predecessor Roberto Mancini.
But in his presentation press conference, Spalletti urged his team and fans to forget the bitterness of that result and focus on the future.
And goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma agrees, even if he admitted that the players “are still angry” about missing out on the Qatar tournament.
“It’s not really revenge that drives us, because we want to focus on ourselves, but we know how important this match is and what happened the last time we played them,” Donnarumma told reporters.
Italy travelled to Skopje for one of two matches which could decide their fate for next summer’s tournament in Germany, where they are aiming to defend the Euro crown.
Ukraine will visit the San Siro on Tuesday night and after that match, Italy will be hoping to be second to runaway group leaders England in the automatic Euro spots.
Italy currently sits third on three points, nine behind England, which has played two extra games and more importantly three away from Ukraine.
And new coach Spalletti, brought in after guiding Napoli to their first league title since 1990, has been tasked with rejuvenating a team which had begun to look tired long before Mancini jumped ship to Saudi Arabia last month.
Right man, right time?
“I have the feeling that Italy has found the right man at the right time,” said Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s new delegation chief, on Monday.
“I had the chance to spend the last few days with him and his staff and they speak about ideas, feelings and values which in my opinion are what we need to reach our objectives.”
Spalletti has dropped captain Leonardo Bonucci and midfielders Marco Verratti and Jorginho, all three key to Italy winning the last Euro.
The 64-year-old said that Paris Saint-Germain’s Verratti and Arsenal man Jorginho were left out due to lack of playing time but the break with Bonucci seems to be permanent as the centre-back approaches the end of his playing career.
Another veteran Ciro Immobile will likely wear the skipper’s armband and hope he can deliver his domestic league form on the international stage.
Italy will line up against Napoli’s Eljif Elmas and former Palermo forward Aleksandar Trajkovski, the man who sealed Italy’s World Cup fate, but it is a North Macedonia team in crisis and unlikely to reach their second European Championship after making the 2021 edition.
Blagoja Milevski’s side is level on points with Italy having played a game more but were smashed 7-0 by England last time out and will be without captain Stefan Ristovski, who turned down his call-up.
Ristovski refuses to play for Milevski and the country’s best-ever player Goran Pandev has publicly criticised both the coach for not stepping down immediately after June’s rout at Wembley and the country’s football federation for not sacking him.
“Everyone expected a change, the people demanded it, but the problem is much deeper and involves the people above the coach,” Pandev told Italian daily Corriere Dello Sport on Wednesday.
“They’ve ruined, after the Euro and World Cup play-off, the best generation of players we have produced in 30 years.