In Italian football, cynical fouls, time wasting and gamesmanship appear to be an art form – an invaluable technique that needs to be perfected just as much as shooting and dribbling.
Italy’s victory over Belgium in their opening Euro 2016 Group E game was the crowning victory of Conte’s tactical scheming. The Italian’s victory over the supposedly superior talent of Belgium was executed in such a manner that would make even legendary Azzurri teams proud.
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) June 14, 2016
Whilst the stunning goals from Graziano Pelle and Emanuele Giaccherini provided the glossy finish to the Italian display, it was the resiliance of Andre Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in the backline that were the standout performers on the night.
As Bonucci described, Italy’s defensive setup epitomised the team spirit of sacrifice – particularly when it came to taking a hit for the team. Whilst sacrifice can sound like an admirable quality on a football field, the manner in which the Italians perform this act leaves a lot to be desired.
When you break the rhetoric down, sacrifice simply means that Italy resorted to the tactical foul on every occasion Belgium looked to be threatening the goal. Mark Clattenburg’s book became cluttered with Italian names… not that this bothered them one bit.
The level of gamesmanship was unprecedented, having cleverly avoided any yellow cards in the first hour, Italy picked up four in the last third of the match as they stopped counter-attacks at all cost – some of the attempts were barely tackles:
— reda (@reda) June 13, 2016
Bonucci at least went for the ball… sort of.
The Belgian fan’s reaction says it all, but the clever distribution of yellow cards amongst the Italian defensive trio meant that that no amount of punishment from the referee would even leave the faintest scratch.
It’s no wonder Conte left the news conference grinning. Though it’s true that you never quite know if his smiles are joyous or bitter, he can stand tall and be proud of this performance. His dirty tactics had beaten down the Belgian attacking talent.
“In a tournament like this, you need an alchemy, of people who get on well together and the biggest satisfaction for me tonight is to see how happy they all were, also those on the bench. There’s a very good spirit in this squad.”
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) June 13, 2016
Conte’s dirty tactics are certainly Italy’s deadliest weapons, and what makes them so potent is the almost universal acceptance of these methods. The ‘Italy Predicament’ presents an interesting psychological point for all football fans:
Belgian fans were up in arms, watching with dismay as successive counter-attack’s were foiled by professional fouls, seemingly with no repercussions of any weight for the offenders. Every neutral, emotionally detached, watched-on unfazed and after 90 minutes, considered Italy’s performance a masterclass.
No one complains about the Italian tactics until they’re on the receiving end of them. It’s the trademark that has allowed the Italians to be so successful in international tournaments, their silenced, stealth weapon that critically wounds their opponents, but somehow remains invisible to bystanders… until, of course, it locks it’s sights on it’s next victim.