Antonio Conte's club mindset helping Italy shine at Euro 2016
Andrea Barzagli was just trying to enjoy a quiet soak. At 35, he is the oldest outfield player in Italy's Euro 2016 squad, yet he's just one of two players who have been on the pitch for every minute of the tournament so far. Muscles aching from another tireless performance in the 2-0 victory over Spain on Monday, he had relished the opportunity to ease himself alone into the team's hydromassage tub.
And then his teammates showed up.
First came Alessandro Florenzi, leaping butt-first into the water in order to create the biggest possible wave. Then Simone Zaza, screaming "Andiamo Barzaglione" ("Let's go Big Barzagli") and splashing water into the centre-back's face with both arms. Zaza later posted the whole scene to Instagram, along with the observation, "Sooner or later he's going to hit me."
If Barzagli does, it will only be in jest. He might be an old man in footballing terms, but there is something about winning games that keeps you young. More to the point, he and Zaza are friends. Indeed, the evidence from France this summer suggests that the bonds between all members of this Italy squad are unusually strong.
You can see it in the way they behave together off the pitch, whether it's larking around in the hot tub, gathering for epic table tennis tournaments or making every bus journey into an excuse for a whole-squad selfie. You can see it from the way they stand together for the national anthem, too, each player bellowing the words until the veins in his neck stick out.
Most of all, you can see it in the way they celebrate goals: Even unused substitutes sprint from the dugout to join their teammates on the pitch. Zaza played no part in Italy's opening game against Belgium but accidentally cut manager Antonio Conte's face when he enthusiastically leaped into his arms after Emanuele Giaccherini opened the scoring.
"When the first person to hug you after a goal is someone on the bench, that shows how attached we are to this shirt," said Florenzi this week. "We are all fans as well as players, and we want the rest of our fans to follow us and support us right to the last minute."
This was Conte's dream from day one. All the way back in September 2014, after taking charge of his first two Italy games, the manager spoke of how he wanted "to achieve a kind of football closer to what you would get from a club team than what you would expect from a national side. That is what it will take for us to close the gap to teams like Germany and Spain."
At the time, it sounded like a tall order. Italy were coming off a World Cup in which they had utterly lacked such cohesion. That tournament began with reports (denied by the national federation) of Antonio Cassano smashing a glass at dinner out of frustration over his exclusion from the team that beat England. It ended with claims of a stand-up row at half-time during the loss to Uruguay as senior players turned on Mario Balotelli, who had reacted poorly to the news that he was about to be substituted.
"We need to forget all this in a hurry," said Daniele De Rossi back then. "Actually, no. Let me correct myself. We need to keep this well in mind and start over with a team of real men. Not sticker-book characters or personalities: We have no place for those in the national team."
Conte could not agree more. He announced that his squad selection this summer had been "based on the value of the man, not just the player."
Overwhelmingly, he stuck with those who carried Italy through qualifying, trusting in their relationships more than their form. That is, after all, what a club side would do. Not even the richest teams in the world will seek to overhaul their whole squad in a single transfer window. Conte allowed himself the equivalent of one big summer signing when he included Lorenzo Insigne, who had not previously played a competitive game under Conte's tenure.
The results speak for themselves.
Italy's players would be the first to agree that they are not the most talented group in France this summer, with Gigi Buffon telling reporters that "the doubts that you had were absolutely legitimate. On paper we are inferior to lots of the national teams present at this tournament: We are saved by hard work, humility and the skill of our manager."
Yet as smoothly as things have worked so far, this journey has not been plain sailing for Conte. When he first outlined his plan for making Italy more like a club side, he expressed a desire to build closer links with Serie A managers, speaking with each of them on a weekly basis and working together to formulate custom training plans for national team stars.
Unsurprisingly, the teams that pay the players' wages weren't largely receptive to such ideas. At one point in late 2014, it appeared that Conte might walk away before he really got started in protest at the lack of cooperation. As recently as February, he was forced to scrap a planned training camp (designed to bridge the four-month gap between international friendlies) after Serie A passed a motion stating that the five clubs still involved in European competition would be exempt from releasing their players.
Despite it all, Conte has built a team that is more than the sum of its parts, a team whose collective spirit is reflected in the fact that every single outfield player (not to mention two of three goalkeepers) has already made it onto the pitch for at least a few minutes at Euro 2016. Rather than listening only to the captain, it's a team that has a different player give the pep talk before each game.
It's also a team in which Zaza -- who has played for a total of 120 minutes, 90 in a match that was effectively meaningless for Italy -- feels as much a part of his team's success as the ever-present Barzagli.
In other words, not just a club side, but the very best kind of club.
Paolo Bandini is a writer and broadcaster who contributes to ESPN FC, The Guardian and The Score, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.