Two proud but diametrically opposed soccer cultures will clash on Sunday when England takes on Italy in the Euro 2020 finals at London’s Wembley Stadium.
Or, so it would seem.
One of the more well-worn cliches in world soccer has long hung around the neck of England. The English, the spiritual caretakers and creators of the sport, are viewed as purists who play the game in the Corinthian spirit, who are fearless going forward, and who make up for their lack of technical skill with grit and steel. Another great soccer cliche depicts the Italians as dour defence merchants, who rely on graft and are ruthlessly efficient at the expense of aesthetics, and who will go to any lengths - be it by hook or by crook - to win.
While there are kernels of truths in those stereotypes, they fall well short of encapsulating the overall spirit and essence of both national teams. If Euro 2020 has accomplished anything, it’s shown that the Italians and English are more alike than they are different.
England enters the final of the European championship largely on the strength of its defence, having conceded just a single goal - and it didn’t even come from open play - through six games. Manager Gareth Southgate has relied on a back four magnificently marshalled by Harry Maguire and John Stones who, in concert with central midfielders Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, have given very little away and snuffed out opposing attackers.
Overall, it’s been disciplined and boring from England, but also effective. Aside from a 4-0 whitewash of Ukraine in the quarter-finals, the English haven’t exactly played champagne soccer or set hearts racing with their free-flowing style. Rather, England has been defined by a down-to-business attitude that saw it finish first in its opening group via a pair of unmemorable 1-0 wins. Southgate’s side has shown great in-game management, doing just enough to win and no more, and going from strength to strength as the tournament has progressed.
There’s also been an element of gamesmanship to England at Euro 2020, as evidenced by Raheem Sterling going down far too easily in earning a highly-disputed penalty in extra time that led to Harry Kane scoring the winning goal against Denmark in the semifinals. Having lectured the rest of the world on the evils of indulging in such chicanery, the English have ceded the moral high ground and see the value in winning at all costs.
While Italy has remained true to its defensive identity during Euro 2020, the Azzurri have mostly played some brilliant, attacking soccer. Turkey and Switzerland were both crushed 3-0 in the group stage, while Belgium, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, were victimized in the Round of 16 by two fantastic goals by Nicolò Barella and Lorenzo Insigne. Even in the wins over Austria and Spain when it reverted back to its roots, Italy carved open its opponents with creative verve, with Juventus’ Federico Chiesa winning admiration from neutral fans for his highlight-reel goals.
Manager Roberto Mancini has moved Italy away from the cautious approach it has historically subscribed to and instilled a sense of belief in his side that it can attack with the best of them and should go for it. The Italians have played most of the tournament on the front foot (with the notable exception of the Spain match), dispatching their opponents with a sense of fearlessness and a dynamic attack, the likes of which long-time observers of the national team haven’t witnessed in quite some time.
Italy has also greatly benefited from the presence of Jorginho, who is being talked about as a possible Ballon d’Or candidate. The Brazilian-born, Chelsea star has fortified Italy’s midfield with his ability to disrupt and distribute, allowing the likes of Marco Verratti and Barella the freedom and space to pursue their attacking instincts.
England has qualified for its first major tournament final in 55 years, while Italy has rebounded from the shame of missing out on the 2018 FIFA World Cup by booking a place in its third European final in 21 years. It’s interesting, and not entirely coincidental, that they have both reached this point by adopting some of the trademark qualities of each other.
It’s also more than a little fitting, considering the pan-European feel to this tournament, with games taking place all across the continent, rather than being concentrated in one nation. The stereotypes that have come to define national teams have slowly eroded away as the internationalism of the world game has been firmly embraced by players and managers alike.
That might not sit well with fans and pundits still eager to cling to tried and tested tropes in espousing their chauvinistic views. But the truth is, Italy and England aren’t all that different. Italy is England, and England is Italy.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.