In the song ‘The Greatest Love of All,’ which was originally recorded by George Benson and then made famous by Whitney Houston, the opening verse is, “I believe the children are our future.” It is such a simple yet understated line, and it can be applied to jobs, situations, or circumstances in which one generation – not necessarily children – has to move on and make way for the other.
Youth teams in football are intended to lay the foundations for success for the senior squads, but Italy in recent years has not been able to produce footballers that can make the transition from youth to senior level.
The Azzurrini are the most successful team in the history of the UEFA European U-21 Championships, winning the tournament five times, but they have not reached the final since 2013 and the players who were in that squad have not progressed as many Italian supporters would like.
Former Palermo tactician Devis Mangia coached the Italy U-21 side which was defeated 4-2 by Spain in the final five years ago, and it was a squad that consisted of players that were from Serie B squads or earning sporadic playing time in Serie A.
Although a few of those players have become starters at Serie A clubs or foreign ones, barely any of them can be considered to be world-class players, and the footballers that have been selected for international duty have been underwhelming when they play for the Italian senior squad.
When looking at the players that featured in the final at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, Israel on June 18, 2013, there are some that have improved over time but have not hit extraordinary heights, others have shown flashes of brilliance, and a few have been fading into obscurity.
Goalkeeper Francesco Bardi was given a great chance to prove himself in Serie A with Livorno in 2013/14, but he did not cover himself in glory, producing some erratic performances as the Labronici finished on the bottom of the Serie A table.
The 26-year-old is now at Frosinone, who defeated Palermo in the Serie B play-offs, and he has the opportunity to redeem himself in Italy’s top flight. The Canarini have acquired him outright from Inter for €1 million, but he never looked capable of establishing himself with the Nerazzurri.
After the tournament, German clubs acquired defenders Giulio Donati and Luca Caldirola, who captained the Italian side, but their careers in Germany have produced mixed fortunes so far. Donati struggled to establish himself at Bayer Leverkusen but he has since become a mainstay at right-back for Mainz for the last two seasons, while Caldirola has battled for fitness and form at Werder Bremen despite featuring regularly on loan at Darmstadt in 2015/16.
Matteo Bianchetti was Caldirola’s partner in central defence in that 2013 team but he had to wait until the 2015/16 season to earn regular playing time at club level, playing 23 Serie A matches for Hellas Verona, and then 34 Serie B games in the following campaign. Unfortunately he was restricted to two league matches on the Gialloblu’s return to Italy’s top flight but he might have a chance to get his career back on track at 25 years of age.
A player that has earned an abundance of playing time for his club since those European U-21 Championships is left-back Vasco Regini from Sampdoria. The 27-year-old did spend a six-month loan spell at Napoli in 2016, but he has been a mainstay of the Blucerchiati rearguard for over four seasons. Despite being awarded the captaincy during his time with the Genoese club, Regini is a player that earns plenty of criticism from Samp supporters due to his timid nature as well as his culpability to make mistakes in defence.
While those defenders do not inspire much confidence, the midfield does feature players that have had decent club careers and have featured for the Italian national team at senior level.
Alessandro Florenzi has become a competent utility player at Roma, Marco Verratti has won many domestic trophies with French club Paris-Saint Germain, and Lorenzo Insigne has been an integral part of the Napoli squads that have been battling with Juventus for the Serie A title in the last three seasons.
Despite working their way into the senior squad, they have not produced many stellar performances. Florenzi had some chances to score in the Azzurri’s ill-fated 2018 World Cup qualification play-off against Sweden but failed to convert, Verratti has not been capable of filling the void Andrea Pirlo left in central midfield, and Insigne has struggled to replicate his club form due to the varying formations and contrasting football philosophies.
The most obscure of the midfield quartet from the 2013 U-21 Euros is former Juventus youth product Fausto Rossi, who had become a career journeyman playing for different clubs in Italy and Spain. He currently plays for Romanian club Universitatea Craiova, which is coached by his former Azzurrini coach Mangia, and he had played five Liga 1 games before a hamstring injury ended his 2017/18 season early.
Up front, the Italians were lead by Ciro Immobile and Fabio Borini, who scored a goal each in the final defeat against the Spain U-21 team.
Immobile has become the leading goalscorer in Serie A twice, winning the first at Torino and the latest at Lazio, and scored the most goals in the 2017/18 Europa League campaign with eight strikes, but he has scored a paltry seven goals in 32 games for the Azzurri. Borini had spells in the English Premier League with Liverpool and Sunderland but he has evolved from a striker to a workhorse utility player at AC Milan.
Forward Manolo Gabbiadini and midfielders Riccardo Saponara and Marco Crimi appeared as substitutes against La Rojita in the final and they have experiences mixed fortunes in their careers too.
Gabbiadini impressed during a spell at Sampdoria from 2013 to 2015 but he failed to replicate that form at Napoli and then at Southampton. He was surprisingly selected to play for Italy against Sweden in November 2017 and could not help the Azzurri overturn the 1-0 deficit from the first leg as the Swedes held on to qualify for Russia 2018.
After struggling to impress at Milan, Saponara regained his form and creative spark in a second spell with Empoli before switching to Fiorentina. Although he started more games in the latter stages of the 2017/18 season with La Viola, he does not seem to fit the system used by coach Stefano Pioli which could put his future at the club in doubt.
Crimi has been a Serie B journeyman throughout his career bar spells at Bari, Bologna, and Carpi in Serie A. His current club Virtus Entella have been relegated from Italy’s second tier so a Serie A return for him is looking very distant at the moment.
A player that did not play in the final but was expected to have more prosperous career was centre-forward Mattia Destro. Although he showed signs of potential at Siena and Roma, he was not able to displace Francesco Totti at the Giallorossi and at his current club Bologna, he has lost his spot in the first XI to another veteran in Rodrigo Palacio.
In contrast to the Italian starlets, their Spanish counterparts have progressed since the tournament in Israel. Seven of Spain’s U-21 team of 2013 are now at the 2018 World Cup with the senior squad while defender Marc Bartra and striker Alvaro Morata were part of the Spanish squad at Euro 2016.
While Mangia’s career has gone downhill since the 2013 final, his Spanish counterpart Julen Lopetegui replaced Vicente Del Bosque as coach of La Furia Roja after Euro 2016 only to be acrimoniously sacked days before Russia 2018 commenced due to his appointment as Real Madrid coach.
Italian football is experiencing a dark period at the moment, especially on the international stage, and youth development has been a problem for over a decade in Italy. Although the lack of progress from the 2013 U-21 team is not the sole reason for the Azzurri failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the underachievement of these players at club and international level has had an impact on the state of one of football’s most successful national teams.
The 2013 European U-21 Championship seems to be false glimmer of hope in hindsight, especially from an Italian perspective. Those Spanish players have helped with the transition of La Roja since the greats of the Golden Generation have retired whereas the Italians have sadly contributed negatively to the plight of La Nazionale.
By: Vito Doria