The Italian National Team’s recently released home blue jersey is an artistic masterpiece that would bring a tear to Michelangelo’s eye. The latest trio of kits that will be adorned by the Azzurri are designed to honor the Italian Renaissance era and the storied artisanal history of the nation players represent during international competition. The home blue and away white are joined by a third green ‘Renaissance’ kit, all three adorned with opaque floral and geometric patterns which evoke a regal and majestic feel. An elegance only suitable for a true blueblood of the sport: the Italians have played in six World Cup finals, winning four, and played in three UEFA European Championship finals, winning one.
Observing the beauty of the new Italian shirts allows a visual medium to tell the tales of a past filled with glorious victories, gut-wrenching defeats, and the pride of a nation’s greatest passion. Yet among the vibrant colors and intricate designs, something appears to be absent. Perhaps a stroke or two of black on the away white?
Azzurri in Black and White - A History
The history of the Italian National Team is intrinsically intertwined with that of the Juventus football club. Juventus is the only club to have contributed players to every Italy National Team since the second edition of the FIFA World Cup in 1934. The club has been a catalyst in every major milestone of the international squad’s illustrious chronicles. Bianconeri have accounted for 144 players, 2,418 matches played, 56 goal scorers, 277 goals, and 26 Azzurri captains with 312 matches captained. The record books overflow with black and white ink recognizing the Italian Greats that have worn the stripes.
A quick inspection of the Italy National Team records and statistics is akin to opening a Juventus FC yearbook. Juventus fans are awash in club pride as a majority of the record holders names read off are familiar to Bianconeri faithful. Seven of the top ten Azzurri goalscorers (Meazza, Piola, Baggio, Del Piero, Inzaghi, Altobelli, and Vieri) wore the Juventus shirt during their career. Seven Juventus players (including current players Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, former players Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Dino Zoff, and Gianluca Zambrotta) sit in the top ten of most international caps by Italian National Team representative and at the very top, (with a 40(!!!) cap lead over second place) perched on his throne, is the greatest goalkeeper of all time, Gianluigi Buffon. To even begin to explain each and every record that Gianluigi Buffon holds by himself would easily double the length of this article. To keep it simple: he holds almost every record possible for an Azzurri goalkeeper. Buffon and other Juventus stars are well honored in the annals of Italian football history.
The Azzurri remain one of the most successful national teams since the inception of the FIFA World Cup and hoisting the trophy at the end of the tournament is the goal every young footballer aspires to achieve. If you have been reading this far it will be unsurprising that, additionally, Juventus is the club with the most players to successfully compete in World Cup finals (21) and bring the trophy home to Italia. The 1934 FIFA World Cup winning Italian squad was aptly nicknamed the Nazio-Juve for the heavily Juventus-laden group to win the sports greatest prize. Additionally in 1982, the Blocco-Juve squad (or Juve Block) was another endearingly nicknamed group of Juventus entrenched Italian players to bring home the country’’s third World Cup. The group included the names of Juventus greats like Gaetano Scirea, Dino Zoff, Paolo Rossi, among others. And most recently, the 2006 FIFA World Cup was another squad littered with Juventus greats and future greats.. more on that team shortly.
To recap: Juventus is the Azzurro Club to give the most players, scorers, captains, and has players that have played the most games, scored the most goals, and captained the most games for the Azzurri in the club’s storied history. The Italy National team and the Juventus football club are synonymous and symbiotic.
An Italian-American Perspective
You can take the man out of Italy, but you can’t take the Italian out of the man. Being ‘Italian’ is not something an individual discards upon departing the country. Italian is a lifestyle. It is the way you greet and show affection to your family and community. It’s the reverence you give you those that came before you and their accomplishments. It’s the life lessons you are given from nonno and the love you receive from nonna (typically of the edible variety). It’s the homes and businesses in New York City and across the country that still fly the Tricolore out of their windows. Being Italian is a pride every Torinese, Roman, Florentine, Milanese, Venetian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, and Calabrian has felt.
My great-grandfather’s family immigrated to the America’s in the early 1900’s from the Italian island of Sicily. I only knew him for the first ten years of my childhood, but the man left an impression greater than any other individual I have met in my twenty years since. He prioritized family and taught me what it meant to be Italian. He told me tales of how his family on his mother’s side were candlemakers in Siracusa and would share their wares with the neighboring Sicilians in exchange for meats, fruit, and vegetables they would share over familial style dinners. His family made it sound as if it was the greatest place, with the greatest people, on Earth. When he passed in September of 2000, I desired to continue to connect more to the people of my ancestors. The Italian people.
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the United States made this difficult. I found the best avenue would be through my love of sport. My hometown is best known internationally for the yearly ‘Run For The Roses’ thoroughbred horse race, better known as the Kentucky Derby. Otherwise the main sport of the region is collegiate basketball. European football is practically nonexistent for most locals. While Serie A was almost impossible to watch in America at this time, I did my best to catch any Azzurri matches that were televised during the World Cup and international play.
During the summer of 2006 I continued my tradition watching the play of Italy in the sport’s biggest stage. In retrospect it was easy to see why the team was so successful and exciting. Some of Italy’s best football players of all time, together, on one team: Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Fabio Cannavaro, and Francesco Totti. But it was the play of Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon that continued to attract my attention. Buffon commanded respect in goal and was as impenetrable of a wall as I’ve ever seen a human perform the position. Gigi rectified the lapses made from his defensive partners and stepped up in the biggest moment helping clinch the World Cup title during penalty kicks against France. Del Piero’s scored penalty at the end of the France final shootout assisted in putting my pulsating heart at ease. But it was the goal scored in the 121’ of the Germany semi-final against the host country of the tournament that sealed the victory and my eternal allegiance.
The 2006 FIFA World Cup gave me an itch that sparsely occurring international matches couldn’t scratch. Thus I began research into the clubs of the Azzurri players and that is when I discovered the Juventus Football Club. Home to my two new sports heroes. (Side Note: Luckily at the ripe old age of sixteen, living in America I did not have the full understanding of the Calciopoli scandal and how it could have possibly affected the club going into the future. Otherwise I could be cheering for AC Milan or another outlet today.). The current players, the storied history, and connection with the international club sold me on the black and white.
Juventus, to me, epitomized what it meant to be a proud Italian club. Italian players for the Bianconeri, specifically Buffon and Del Piero, exemplified what it meant to be Italian champions. From the fantastic play on the pitch to the remarkable, endearing personalities off; the Juventus-Azzurri players of 2006 reflected the lessons I had been taught by my great-grandfather of what it means to be Italian. Champions of Italy. Champions of the World.
The Italian Candidates
Juventus’ current squad roster includes a meager three current Italian National players: captain Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Federico Bernadeschi. With two of the three more than likely to see the sun set on their time in the blue shirt in the coming years. If The Old Lady wishes to reestablish itself as the premier club for Italian talent, who could the management pursue that would also bolster the club’s deficiencies?
The Implausible Crown Jewel - Nicolò Zaniolo
The future of Italian football, and possibly the top projected talent produced from the continent in recent years, is also the least likely pickup of the 2020 summer transfer market. Largely because the new owners of Roma, The Friedkin Group, vigorously put a wall around the player emphatically claiming he is not for sale after the acquisition of the club in August.
When healthy, Zaniolo is a big body with enough strength and scoring ability to take over a match from the attacking midfield position. The biggest obstacle to Zaniolo reaching his ultimate potential is his own health. Most recently, the player suffered his second anterior cruciate ligament injury in less than a year during a win for the Azzurri against the Netherlands earlier this month. The first ACL injury was suffered in a match against Juventus during the 2019/20 season. Will the midfielder be able to fully recover or is Zaniolo another in a long line of talented footballers cursed by their own fragility? Perhaps a trip to J Medical is just what the doctor ordered... just no permanent residence a la Sami Khedira.
In international play, the Italian from Massa has appeared in seven total matches, scoring two goals in the short span since his first appearance in 2019. For club, Zaniolo has appeared in fifty-three matches and accumulated ten goals.
In addition to the physical attributes, the most important rationale for getting Nicolò Zaniolo to Turin is his documented past (which can be located via a quick Twitter search) as a Juventini that far precedes his professional career. While the young man may adorn the red and gold at the current moment, his veins run black and white. It may not happen this summer, but time is calling the Old Lady’s boy home.
The Missed Opportunity - Sandro Tonali
You’ve heard the praises and the comparisons, fairly or unfairly, drawn with the 20 year old midfielder that played the majority of his young career at Brescia and our current Mister. Il Maestro himself, Andrea Pirlo, spoke high praise for the rising Italian national that engages a more defensive style in the midfield, but the Bianconeri management refrained from pursuit of the Azzurri youth even after the new manager’s installment. AC Milan seized the opportunity (and an Inter floundering of an all-but-signed deal) to swoop in and sign Tonali on a stunningly cheap 10 million euro loan fee with option to purchase outright for 15 million euro next summer. Thus the Pirlo doppelganger is not a possibility this mercato, but is sure to be a name to keep tabs on should he follow a similar path down the line to the Piedmont region.
The Endearing Retread - Moise Kean
Most Juventus fans will be familiar with the young striker. Moise Kean remains one of Italy’s most promising young prospects who is capable of playing centre forward, as a second striker, or even as a winger. Kean plays in a style that utilizes his strong physique and expeditious footwork to dismantle opposing defenses. During his time playing for Juventus from 2016-2019 he made only sixteen appearances, but made the best of his opportunities by accounting for seven goals. While the striker has similarly only made a paltry five appearances in international play, he has tallied scores twice. Kean was sold to Everton in 2019 and has not been as successful as the Premier League club had anticipated in the purchase, only netting two goals in thirty-one appearances.
Since Pirlo’s arrival at Juventus Il Maestro has made known his desire to have Kean return to the club, a sentiment the striker reciprocates, but the semantics in bartering with Everton remain the biggest hindrance to a swift return to Torino. Reports remain that Juventus request a loan with an option-to-purchase deal for the striker, but Everton demand an obligation of sale with the deal rather than a noncommittal option. Following the return of Alvaro Morata to Juventus, it remains to be seen if the club will attempt to bolster the number nine position or allocate its assets elsewhere.
The Maestro’s Apprentice - Manuel Locatelli
The midfield has been a point of contention for the Bianconeri faithful for the majority of the 2019/20 season. And while the additions of McKennie and Arthur have bolstered the position it remains a prevalent thought that one more addition is needed to complete the rebuild of the position. One of the names highlighted is that of Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli. Locatelli currently rates as one of the best midfielders in Serie A, averaging 65.94 passes per 90 minutes and helps contribute to Sassuolo’s top three stat at 56.2% possession per game. One of the highlights of Locatelli’s ability is on the defensive end where the midfielder averages 3.05 tackles and 4.28 interceptions in the final third of the pitch per 90 minutes played. Locatelli’s pass accuracy sits at 86.5%, averages 0.55 key passes per 90 minutes per match, and rates second best in the league in relation to passes in the final third per 90 minutes at 11.65. Locatelli is better than most Serie A midfielders at almost every aspect of his position and has shown great development following his sale to the Neroverdi from AC Milan.
Conversations held prior to September’s international break only stoked the flames on a possible desire for the midfielder to join The Old Lady as Locatelli made statements of ‘It’s a dream to be linked with Juventus’ and ‘Pirlo is my idol’. The midfield genius that is Il Maestro is surely able to conduct a new modus operandi for a Bianconeri Locatelli.
The Viable Option - Federico Chiesa
The rumor mills have caught fire in recent days with reference to a possible move for the winger from Fiorentina to The Old Lady. Rocco Commisso has been anything, but coy with talk of a possible move for the 22 year old Viola player as he is very much aware this year is his last opportunity to make a hefty profit on the Azzurri youth. And if you tend to believe the headlines, Chiesa has requested a move himself with a preferred landing point in Turin.
Federico Chiesa is a versatile attacker for the Viola who can play both as a winger and a forward on the right flank. Chiesa prefers to take wide positions in the middle third of the pitch to create separation from his marker and give his feet room to work for the ball, while in the final third he tends to drift between the lines to create passes penetrating from the center of the field. One of Chiesa’s strongest attributes is his ability to attack in transition while utilizing aggressive runs. This was showcased in the recent score against Inter Milan with the assist supplied from Ribery. Dribble success and shot selection are the two main points for improvement that Chiesa should focus on to become one of the next Italian greats should a move to Juventus be completed. As the final week of the mercato reaches a close, Federico Chiesa appears the best option the club has at bringing in a top young Italian talent.
The Headscrather Rumor - Emerson Palmieri
Chelsea is open to the possibility of offloading the Italian left-back who plays in a position of need for the Bianconeri. Since arriving in 2018 Palmieri has been a serviceable back in the role when given the opportunity, making 30 appearances in matches since his arrival.
The Heir Apparent - Gianluigi Donnarumma
Donnarumma is not so much an ‘heir apparent’ as the flat out heir to the golden-engraved throne Buffon built in the box at the number one position. Donnarumma is one of the rising stars of the Italian National Team and has already showcased at Milan why he is such a valued keeper. Donnarumma has a tall frame standing 6’4” and has a propensity for locating and blocking most shots on target. In the last calendar year Donnarumma made a fantastic save against one of the best penalty kickers in the game, Cristiano Ronaldo. Mino Raiola has made it apparent that the Milan keeper is not happy with the current negotiations to renew his contract with the club and has floated the idea of a move to Juventus. But whether this is a positioning tactic or a notice for next year’s transfer market remains to be seen.
The Hot Take - Mario Balotelli
A name that is sure to bring hellfire and scorched earth to any comment section, but Balotelli in the early 2010’s was a footballer brimming with as much potential as his attitude could carry him. Unfortunately, the attitude and discipline issues have sent a promising future star with the possibility of propelling himself into the upper stratosphere of Italian football history directly into the gutter. As was witnessed in Brescia last season. But there are some that refuse to give up hope… ever the optimist, your narrator sees the afflicted Balotelli through a different blue-tinted lense starving for redemption.
If one is familiar with the popular Marvel film series it is Nick Fury’s dream to assemble a team of individuals with extraordinary abilities. One of the numerous obstacles to developing the winning squad in the films is balancing the various eccentric and volatile personalities. The most notable personality of the group is one that strongly reflects our current subject, Bruce Banner or The Incredible Hulk. A physically imposing athlete who is able to dominate opponents in almost any arena. In 2012 Balotelli decimated international defenses the same way the Hulk decimated Loki in Avengers Tower. Unfortunately, neither one prefers to play nice and follow the rules outside of action. That volatility remains the barrier to success and the catalyst for each individual’s self destruction. Only when Fury, the Avengers, and Banner himself are able to get that volatility under control and use it in a purposeful manner is that force able to be used for good result. Mister Pirlo (who played alongside Balotelli in the early 2010’s) might just be the Nick Fury needed to get the job done with Italy’s own Incredible Hulk. It would also lean in Juventus’ favor seeing as Balotelli is currently hanging onto his final lifeline and could be a fairly cheaper option than he would otherwise be for a backup number nine. Alas, science fiction more than likely remains greater than reality in this case.
Fino Alla Fine: The Bottomline
Both Juventus and the Italy National Team are built on the bedrock that is Italian football talent. Without the successes of one the other would not exist as we know it today. Juventus’ current Italian nationals are growing old in the tooth and will see retirement from international play arrive in their near future.
‘Club, before country.’ While the old saying holds true for most, the significance of Italian pride cannot be dismissed. Without this club there would not be the successes of country, and without country there would be no club. Italy built Juventus and Juventus built Italy. While club management would be ignorant to not pursue the Cristiano Ronaldo’s, the Paul Pogba’s, even the Houssem Aouar’s of the world; it would be negligent to ignore the countrymen that built the club into what it is today. An Italian core has been and will continue to be the foundation of the most successful Juventus teams.
The sentiment can be summarized in two phrases:
By: Justin Soforo @JustinSoforo