Getting Italy to perform at Euro 2016 Conte's greatest managerial test yet
For the first time ever, the Italy squad was announced and presented on live TV. RAI, the state broadcaster, put on a show entitled "Sogno Azzurro," or "Blue Dream". More than 4 million people tuned in to find out who was in and who was out of Antonio Conte's final squad.
La Gazzetta dello Sport had leaked what they believed his 23-man list would be in Monday's edition of the paper. The Pink was pretty sure of all but one of the names. What they couldn't quite decide on was who would go, between Fiorentina's Federico Bernardeschi and AC Milan's Giacomo Bonaventura. Tentatively La Gazzetta felt Bonaventura would be the one to get cut and their instincts did not fail them. But the Pink got it wrong about Napoli's deep-lying playmaker Jorginho making it instead of Juventus' gritty Stefano Sturaro.
If this was high drama, it didn't get people up on the edge of their seats. The producers had about as much talent to work with as Conte, which isn't a lot. The FIGC had presumably given the green light to the whole thing on the basis that it would put the national team front and centre, whip up enthusiasm and even provide ulterior motivation to a group of players who were already proud just to have been selected. After all, 10 of those in Conte's squad were not at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago.
Graziano Pelle, a ballroom dancer as a kid, was asked to take the floor with Samanta Togni, the winner of this season's Dancing with the Stars in Italy. A video link was set up allowing the studio to cross live to Frattamaggiore in Naples and get Lorenzo Insigne to speak to his family. The Napoli winger's brothers Roberto, Antonio and Marco are all professional footballers. RAI also patched through to Insigne's local hairdresser. Stephan El Shaarawy was then reunited with his first ever coach Dionigi Donati while his Roma teammate Alessandro Florenzi revealed his packing essentials. Apparently "the PlayStation" is always the first thing in his suitcase.
As an exercise, all this served to make the squad more relatable to the audience, more human, which was well intentioned but misjudged. Footballers are supposed to be gods in Italy and all this achieved was to validate the sensation that Olympus has fallen. It is the most mediocre squad Italy have sent to a major tournament in a long, long time. "It's not our best moment," captain Gigi Buffon admitted, "but when no one expects anything of you that's when you show what you've got and manage to surprise people."
Major tournament cliches like "Italy are at their best when their backs are against the wall" are being clung to amid strong doubts. But even with little crumbs of comfort, it is quite depressing to pick up the papers at the newsstand or down at the bar and read that the reassurance for Italy is to be found in Denmark winning the Euros in 1992 and Greece improbably doing it in 2004. These were teams of modest ability. Is this how far Italy have fallen? It's just another mark of how low expectations are in the bel paese.
The last time Italy played a major tournament in France they could count on Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Costacurta and Alessandro Nesta in defence; and Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Baggio, Christian Vieri, Enrico Chiesa and Filippo Inzaghi up front. Understandably then, nostalgia is more keenly felt than in other years. Genuinely the only area of the team acknowledged as world class is the backstop Juventus have provided of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. Italy will, in all probability, have to lean on them more than ever.
The injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio will make it harder for them to impose their play. They will have to absorb pressure more than they would like and go old school, particularly against the better teams, even reverting back to their catenaccio roots. This is thought to be one of the principal reasons why Conte picked the Gennaro Gattuso-like Sturaro instead of Jorginho whose short, often horizontal passing game does not correspond to the vertical, often long-ball game that will be the order of the day if Italy are to strike effectively on the counter.
Symbolic of the state of Italy at the moment is Thiago Motta getting the prestigious No. 10 shirt. This decision has been met with howls of derision. "Ten: as in the number you play with him [on the pitch]" was one reaction. Another was to think of it as a speed limit. Motta is considered so slow by some that he never goes faster than 10 kilometres per hour. "It's like putting parmesan on spaghetti alle vongole," an unforgivable faux pas. It's harsh but probably fair, especially when you think of some of the players to wear that shirt in the past: Gianni Rivera, Baggio, Del Piero and Francesco Totti. It exacerbates rather than alleviates the sense of despair.
The No. 10 had been earmarked for Verratti. However, once he became unavailable because of a groin injury, Conte had to have a rethink. He could have awarded it to either Insigne, the favourite, or Bernardeschi, who wears it for Fiorentina. The reason why he didn't is supposedly because he wished to avoid burdening a youngster with the responsibility. For sure it will not faze Motta who, at 33, has broad enough shoulders to not let it weigh him down, and besides, it is not like he is the first 10 to be an odd choice.
Giacinto Facchetti wore it in 1968 and Gigi de Agostini in 1988. Both were left-backs and Motta will gladly point his critics in the direction of his stats this season. No player had more touches, played more passes and boasted a higher completion rate than he did in Ligue 1 this campaign. Only Toni Kroos made more passes in the Champions League, although, to be honest, the numbers do not make anyone less sceptical. A shortfall in inspiration will have to be compensated by perspiration. Truth be told, you get the impression Conte wouldn't want it any other way.
When he accepted to take the job, he made it clear where his priorities lie in selection: character first, talent second. "In the end, I believe I have chosen the best," he explained. "Those who give the greatest guarantees in relation my ideas." Make no mistake, Italy will likely be a grind in France. A slow burner that, in the absence of any real spark, might not catch fire. It will be the biggest challenge of Conte's managerial ability.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.