As with most Italy games, Roberto Mancini’s debut was greeted with a mixture of over-excited mania and doom-laden despair, but very little in-between. It’s the first friendly match of a new era, at the end of a long season with no World Cup to look forward to and at a time when all the players just want to go on vacation. Don’t expect the moon.
Mario Balotelli returns after four years of being inexplicably not even called up and within 20 minutes has found the net. He works hard, has several more chances, provides a great through ball that Alessandro Florenzi fails to make the most of and even apologises when accidentally clattering an opponent. He goes off after an hour due to a muscular problem and the reaction to his performance is along the usual party lines.
Those who have been calling for Balo’s inclusion for months, even years, are shouting from the rooftops that Italy would’ve been packing their bags for Russia right now if they had only picked the Nice striker during qualifying. The usual gang who call him a disgrace to the Azzurri jersey view it as a lazy display, doing the bare minimum against a poor Saudi team, not celebrating and mumbling through the national anthem. Both are, in my humble view, wrong.
Balotelli is a very good striker, no doubt about it, but there were fundamental problems within Giampiero Ventura’s side that needed a lot more than a hitman to solve them. He did what he had to do against Saudi Arabia who, poor or not, are going to the World Cup while we’re trying to decide who to support or whether to even bother watching the tournament at all. I don’t really see what more he could’ve done in the time on the field.
While SuperMario is the lightning rod for the Azzurri, he’s not the only one who prompts this all or nothing response. Lorenzo Insigne is either hero or villain, the best player on the pitch or the most useless waste of space, and never the twain shall meet. Gianluigi Donnarumma is a victim of media bias or an hyped up child in over his head.
Somewhat inevitably, much of the adoration or criticism of these players is influenced by club allegiance and that is the main problem Italy face.
Right now, the Italian Government is non-existent after talks to form a coalition broke down. Again. And again. This is not a united country. People would rather argue and blame each other than try to find solutions to common goals, or God forbid acknowledge the other side had done something right. It’s no different in Italian football and the partisan nature of the analysis to any Azzurri match is frankly unhelpful.
Mancini had his first game in charge and actually won his debut, something that only Antonio Conte had managed out of the last eight Italy tacticians. He tried to spark a generational shift with the youngest starting XI since November 2010, coming in at an average age of 26 years and eight days. Still he is criticised in some quarters for a “disgraceful” 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia, while others declare it the dawn of a new era just days before facing a far tougher test with France.
Unless we in the media, and the fans, find some semblance of balance and realism, we’ll never be happy with the Azzurri or help them to improve.