Chiellini believes Italy can become a ‘contender’ again

ROME — A first-round exit from the 2010 World Cup. A lopsided loss to Spain in the 2012 European Championship final. The victim of Luis Suárez’s bite at the 2014 World Cup, which ended in another first-round elimination. A penalty shootout loss to Germany at Euro 2016.

While he has made more than 100 appearances and been involved in more victories than defeats, Giorgio Chiellini’s Italy career has been marked mostly by disappointment when it counts most.

None bigger than the embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The devastating playoff loss to Sweden nearly four years ago marked the end of an era for players like Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi.

Chiellini also seriously considered international retirement after that defeat at Milan’s San Siro stadium.

Instead, the 36-year-old center back weathered a series of injuries to captain Italy through a perfect qualifying run for the European Championship — 10 wins in 10 matches — and now he’s leading the Azzurri into Euro 2020’s inaugural match against Turkey on Friday with a 27-game unbeaten streak and newfound optimism.

“We really want to make things right, to make Italy a contender in a big international tournament again,” Chiellini said Thursday. “Because that defeat in Milan with Sweden is something that remains inside us and can never be erased.

“But I think that over these last few years we’ve done well to transform that disappointment into a lot of enthusiasm and a desire to do well. … It’s been five years since Italy has experienced this. We know that and we really can’t wait to go out and share these emotions all together.”

While it would have seemed improbable after missing the World Cup in Russia, Italy is entering this tournament with big expectations.

The Azzurri have won eight straight matches without conceding a goal and have 20 clean sheets in 32 matches since Roberto Mancini took over as coach from Gian Piero Ventura after the Sweden debacle.

“It’s OK for fans to have that type of enthusiasm,” Mancini said. “We know what we’re going to be facing. It’s going to be a soccer game and it’s important to have some fun and provide some entertainment.”

The Stadio Olimpico will be 25% full for the game, marking the biggest crowd in Italy for a year and a half.

“It’s a shame we won’t have a full stadium but we’ll have 16,000 people there, even if many may be Turkey supporters,” Mancini said. “A full Olimpico would have been like having a 12th man. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

While Mancini wouldn’t reveal any details of his lineup, he suggested that it makes no difference whether Ciro Immobile or Andrea Belotti line up at center forward. The pair have alternated at the position recently, although Immobile is expected to get the nod for the opener.

“In the end if they both do what they know how to do — score goals, play for the team and fight — that’s the key,” Mancini said.

Still, Mancini was anticipating a long night before game day.

“I hope I can sleep,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a night unlike any other. I hope we keep going to the point where I don’t sleep until July 9 or 10.”

The final is scheduled for July 11 at Wembley Stadium in London — which would be a fitting venue for Chiellini’s final national team game.

Chiellini has also struggled to win a European trophy with his club, having lost two Champions League finals with Juventus.

He was asked if this might finally be the time to bring home the hardware.

“Let’s talk about that,” Chiellini said, “if we get to the final at Wembley.”

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