While many predicted Italy to challenge for the title, Azzurri fans had little hope going in to the European Championship. Ahead of Ireland's do-or-die clash, the Italian's winning start has come as a surprise, writes Antonio Ferrara.

While many predicted Italy to challenge for the title, Azzurri fans had little hope going in to the European Championship. Ahead of Ireland’s do-or-die clash, the Italian’s winning start has come as a surprise, writes Antonio Ferrara.

Italy is a country with thousands of various facets, charaterised by many cultural inland differences that are always ready to come to blows. But as ever in our history, there’s something that combines us: the passion for football and the national team. This is especially true when it plays matches against rivals like Brazil or historical antogonists such as France and Germany.

For any sports game, us Italians are used to meeting up, throwing a party and rooting for our tricolour. This is a custom from some years ago when Italy was at the height of its success and the famous blue strip was worn by incredible football stars. Once upon a time, everyone watched the national team matches in accordance with some basic rules: food, beverages, a solemn silence and friends with whom we can share the joy of victory or the frustration of a defeat.

Prior to Italy’s winning start to Euro 2016, when the national team played there was an almost absolute sense of indifference. For a number of reasons.

In 2006 we always felt we could win the World Cup. We wanted to reedem ourselves from four years previously when we were eliminated in one of the most unjust football games. In fact our world championship was a great triumph. When we feel it’s the right year for winning a sports competition, the atmosphere becomes electric and tense and everyone speaks about that event. The anticipation ahead of the tournament, when we are full of hope, can seem to last an eternity.

But when expectations are betrayed or we aren’t so convinced of something (the players, the formation, the manager) this enthusiastic climate disappears and a speechless resignation takes the place of it. Just as it did at the 2010 World Cup.

Just a few weeks ago, we shook our heads and kept silent because we had no illusions about this European Championship. Unfortunately Italian people’s feelings were very negative about this tournament. Even worse, there has been a general coldness towards our national team.

All Azzurri supporters remember the exploits of the great team in Germany 2006 – we are a people with old-fashioned values, romantic and proudly attached to the past, and fantastic champions like Totti and Del Piero.

So very few people put their trust in this new football generation because a lot of fans think that it’s composed of players who are inferior to previous teams in terms of technique and even human qualities. This opinion arose from the dreadful experience of the 2014 World Cup. Ours is a second-rate team; there are few players that can make the difference and the search of a centre forward constantly continues.

Our attack is rather scant and in it there are either players who play in foreign leagues (Pellé, Rossi) or players with great skills but don’t want to engage in work (such as Balotelli, who is no longer part of the national scene). Our midfield, the key-zone in a football match, had become poor in ideas and quality after Pirlo’s departure for the USA.

The only very good player is Verratti, but a lot of people consider him a foreigner after all these years at PSG. Moreover the defence is the product of a sole team, Juventus. And since the anti-Juve feeling is deeply ingrained in Italy, this fact contributes to the lack of support for the national team. Some Italians even support other national sides such as Holland or Belgium.

Gattuso, the ex-mainstay of Milan and Italy remarked: “Are there fewer talented players? Today our young men play and train ten hours a week, while we played and trained ten hours a day. Perhaps it’s for this change of mentality that there aren’t talented players any more.”

Unfortunately the youth sector is also quite ignored: a lot of Italian teams have a good cantera but clubs prefer to disregard it (for some stange reason) and pay a lot of money for South American little champions or other foreign players.

Compared with the 2006 team, which was an excellent formation composed of players who came from different Italian setups, nowadays the national team bears no comparison. We have to consider the manager factor too. A lot of people thought Conte, who won three consecutive national leagues with Juventus, could give the team a winning mentality and a striking style of play. Before now, it didn’t happen and there was gossip about his resignation – since confirmed that he will coach Chelsea – that surely didn’t help our team.

As a result of all that, the morale has been quite low and, prior to the competition, nobody thought the expedition in France will be successful, even if Italy qualified without losing a match. When we don’t feel the bracing atmosphere, we sense the tournament will be a failure. We know it. We are a people of seers…but we are also a people who ward off ill-luck so we keep silent and we wait for a sporting miracle.

Antonio Ferrara is an Italian football journalist and sports radio commentator.