Mancini has Italy smiling again after the team’s darkest day

LONDON — Less than four years after Italian soccer’s darkest moment, Roberto Mancini has the country’s national team smiling again.

Tuesday’s jubilant celebration after beating Spain in a penalty shootout to reach the European Championship final was in stark contrast to the scenes in 2017 when the players slumped to the ground in disbelief after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

And whatever happens in Sunday’s final against England at Wembley Stadium, Mancini wants his players to continue having fun.

“We have to be calm, knowing that it will be a difficult match, for a lot of reasons,” Mancini said Saturday. “We have to remain focused on our game and try to impose it the best we can, knowing that it will be the last match.

“So if we want to enjoy ourselves for another 90 minutes, we have to do so tomorrow. Then the Euros will finish and the guys will go on vacation.”

It is Mancini who has been the architect of Italy’s renaissance.

He was appointed coach to replace Gian Piero Ventura, who was fired after the playoff loss to Sweden, and their brand of soccer couldn’t be more different.

Mancini has turned things around by focusing on tactics and style of play. Italy’s free-flowing, attacking system is in contrast to the often turgid soccer the team played during Ventura’s tenure.

And that’s exactly how Mancini wants it.

“Entertaining,” said Mancini, when asked for an adjective to describe his team. “And as I said earlier, I hope the guys enjoy themselves for another 90 minutes tomorrow.

“But I would also use the word ‘important’ because of everything they did, because it wasn’t easy, we had difficult matches, some really difficult. It was a path full of difficulty and hard work … now we need one last push.”

Italy’s players have been full of smiles all tournament.

There has been a relaxed air in training and even before the penalty shootout against Spain, Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini was joking and laughing with Spain counterpart Jordi Alba.

“I’m enjoying every moment of these last years of my career, always with a smile and respect for my opponents,” said Chiellini, who turns 37 next month. “I laugh I joke, I hug my opponents.

“That joy and that relishing of every moment comes from the knowledge that I have to think day by day, live every second. Someone like me can’t make long term plans, I just have to transmit this joy of playing to the younger lads.”

Italy’s defensive stalwarts of Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci bring a wealth of experience to blend with the Azzurri’s rich pool of young talents.

“Everyone brings something, a different ingredient … Then next to me there is a great chef that mixes the ingredients well,” said Chiellini, smiling at Mancini.

The coach will be hoping to serve up the Euro 2020 trophy on Sunday night.

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