There is nothing more disappointing for the public than seeing a world-renowned forward fail to deliver for the National team. Throughout the years, Italians have both enjoyed mediocre strikers turn into Azzurri legends and great attacking players not live up to their names. The latter has been the case of many and, notably, of one of the most skilful and talented forwards of the late 1980s and 90s, Roberto Mancini.
Born in the mid-60s in a smaller province of Italy's central Adriatic coast, Mancio was considered among the most naturally gifted footballers of his generation ever since he was a teenager. Playing mostly as an offensive midfielder or inside forward, he was especially known to be an excellent dribbler and assist man.
After debuting in Serie A with Bologna as a 17-year-old, Mancini was sold to Sampdoria in the summer of 1982. In 14 seasons wearing the Blucerchiati shirt, Mancini would form a notoriously deadly strike partnership with Gianluca Vialli and help the club to unprecedented success, including their first Scudetto, four Coppa Italia wins and even a Champions League final against Barcelona.
Before ending his career at Leicester City in 2001, Mancini played three seasons at Lazio alongside some of the greatest footballers of the time. Among other successful domestic and international campaigns, the most notable probably remains the historic 1999-2000 season, which saw the relentless Biancocelesti win their second ever Scudetto. But despite rightfully belonging to the Olympus of footballing immortality, Mancio will never be remembered as an Azzurri legend.
After two successful years as captain of a future star-studded Under-21 National team, Mancio debuted with the senior squad in the summer of 1984 during a friendly against Canada. Despite being only 19, Roberto had already played three seasons in Serie A, scoring a grand total of 21 goals.
Unfortunately, Mancio had also earned himself a reputation for his recklessness and bad temper, which often led him to argue with coaches, referees and journalists. In the summer of his debut, he played a total of 90 minutes with the Azzurri before manager Enzo Bearzot would question his professionalism and drop him from the squad. Mancini never apologized for returning to the team's New York hotel at 6am after a night out, hence Bearzot refused to call him up until the end of his tenure.
When former U-21 manager Azeglio Vecini replaced Bearzot after the 1986 World Cup, Mancini finally returned wearing the senior Azzurri shirt for the first time in two and a half years.
After risking not being eligible for international duty due to strong accusations against Serie A referees, Samp's wonder boy was eventually called up for the 1988 European Championship. It was then that he scored his long-waited first goal in 14 appearances for Italy, finishing against West Germany in the group stage of the tournament. Unfortunately, he failed to score again, and the Azzurri were eliminated in the semi-finals by the USSR.
In the following two years, Mancini went scoreless in only four games for Italy and, despite being part of the squad, he would never take the field during the 1990 World Cup. The official version was that the two Robertos, Baggio and Mancini, couldn't coexist in the starting XI due to their similar characteristics, but the public opinion suggested that the relationship between manager and player had irreparably fallen apart. Mancini would later confirm this theory and recall that tournament as one of "the most frustrating moments of my career as a footballer".
With Arrigo Sacchi as CT, Mancini took part in the qualifying matches for the 1992 European Championship without ever scoring a goal, hence failing to be called up for the final stage of the tournament.
He finally found his form in the build-up to the 1994 World Cup, scoring as many as three goals in five qualifying matches. Surprisingly, however, Mancini didn't make the cut for the team that would travel to the United States, as Sacchi also saw him too similar to Baggio and would rather call up a more acclaimed goal scorer like Gianfranco Zola. After a mere 35 appearances, four goals, zero minutes played at a World Cup and endless controversies, a 29-year-old Roberto Mancini decided to put an end to his career as Italian international.
Nobody would have guessed that, 24 years down the line, the once-reckless footballer would have become a highly respected manager. Surely, nobody would have guessed that, out of all people, he would one day take the job as coach of the Italian National football team. With one unexpected, additional year to prepare for the upcoming European Championship, you can be sure that Mancini will be looking for redemption. After all, it's never too late to become an Azzurri legend.
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