With Italy struggling to secure a spot at UEFA Euro 2024, coach Luciano Spalletti is crying out for a goalscoring saviour to stand up and deliver in the final two European Cup Qualifiers (ECQ), a dilemma that many of his predecessors circumvented.
Italians have long revelled in the extraordinary achievements of their goalscoring centravanti heroes. For generations, Serie A has facilitated the production line of pure genius from Gigi Riva to Paolo Rossi, then Salvatore Schillaci and more recently, Christian Vieri. In terms of European prestige, Italy is second to none, having won four FIFA World Cups while manifesting one of the richest bloodlines of attacking talent the world has ever seen.
However, they say that every empire must fall.
Despite Italy’s status as incumbent Euro champions – defeating England on their own patch in 2021 – the Azzurri sit precariously in third place of Group C, smack bang between upcoming opponents North Macedonia and Ukraine. Only the top two from each group qualify for next year’s competition in Germany and Spalletti requires a minimum of four more points (at least one win and a draw) to be assured of second position.
Sacrificing the striker for the ‘greater good’
Beating England two years ago restored pride amongst Italy fans, however, Euro 2020’s achievements under Roberto Mancini – much like FIFA 2006 under Marcello Lippi – relied heavily on goalscoring involvements from numerous players around the pitch. While this may be a strength in terms of unpredictability, the indirect consequences include a diminishing impact from centre forwards. Managers have moved away from traditional 4-4-2 formations, relying more on systems (4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3) that amplify the participation of inverted wingers who stretch opponents by staying out wide.
Many of the planet’s best leagues are to blame, including Serie A. The number ten role once showcased by Roberto Baggio and Francesco Totti is no longer, deemed too selfish for the modern manager. In today’s game, Diego Maradona would be a right winger in Napoli’s 4-3-3 with Zico repurposed as a box-to-box midfielder at Udinese, both coerced into miles of tracking back. Up forward, Gianluca Vialli would be as isolated and frustrated as Dušan Vlahović is right now at Juventus, trapped in a demoralising world where defending is done in the final third and attackers are castigated for not closing down their opponents quickly enough.
One thing is certain, the quintessential Italian striker of decades past has been exterminated.
According to statistics provided by Transfermarkt, just 26 of 95 Serie A goals (24.7%) have been scored by Italian strikers in 2023-24, with over three-quarters netted by foreign talents.
Last season, there were a measly four Italiani amongst Serie A’s top 20 goalscorers, the youngest being 31-year-old Manolo Gabbiadini. Alarmingly, of the 222 goals shared between those 20 strikers, Italians scored only 33 times (14.9%) with Ciro Immobile’s 12-goal tally the highest. It’s no wonder that Genoa turned to Mateo Retegui during the transfer window, signing the Italo-Argentinian for $12.85M (€12M) following his 32-goal haul for Tigre.
While Italy fails to nurture aspiring local strikers, many other nations continue to churn out world-class attackers. Since Luca Toni’s 31 goals in 2005-06 at the age of 28, the last Italians to score twenty goals or more in a Serie A season, other than Immobile, were Alessandro Matri (20 in 2010-11) and Andrea Belotti (26 in 2016-17).
When Italy won the 2006 World title, 14 of the top 20 strikers (70%) in Serie A were Italians, amassing 204 of those 307 goals (66.4%). Talk about spoiled for choice.
Moreover, Serie A boasted 16 Italians amongst the top 20 scorers back in 1982-83, decreasing to 13 by 2002-03 and tapering off severely to four in 2022-23.
Other than in 2006, an anomalous year where Lippi extracted 12 goals from 10 different scorers, the Azzurri once luxuriated through Salvatore Schillaci (6 goals at Italia ‘90), Robert Baggio (5 at USA ‘94) and Christian Vieri (5 at France ‘98), whenever playing six or more games at a World Cup.
Since the turn of the century, another disheartening downward trend shows that since Filippo Inzaghi’s four goals at Euro 2000, only Antonio Cassano (3 at Euro 2004) and Mario Balotelli (3 at Euro 2012) have scored more than twice at an international tournament.
Although correlation doesn’t always mean causation, this is a historical low that only the most stoic Azzurri fan can stomach. Metaphorically, Italy has thrown pineapple onto its own pizza, abolishing longstanding principles that were once conducive to producing successful strikers.
There is one particularly disturbing issue that remains in plain sight. Serie A’s biggest clubs have copied the English Premier League’s modus operandi of prioritising foreign talents. Juve’s Moise Kean is the only Italian striker at a big three club with Milan disposing of the promising Lorenzo Colombo to Monza while Inter sold Andrea Pinamonti to Sassuolo for $32M and sent 21-year-old Sebastiano Esposito to second division side Sampdoria – his sixth loan spell.
Banking on the smaller clubs
In terms of tall, muscular and mobile strikers, Luciano Spalletti has one viable option. Atalanta’s Gianluca Scamacca has scored five times in Serie A this term – the most of any Italian centre forward – and put away his first international goal against England at Wembley last month.
With Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti considered used goods, and with Retegui injured for four of the last five league matches, the goalless Moise Kean may be called upon – hardly a frightening prospect for the Ukrainians and North Macedonians. Realistically, the 172cm Giacomo Raspadori (3 goals for Napoli) is the only viable alternative.
Awaken the ghosts of a bygone era?
Maybe the answers to all of Italy’s problems lie in the revival of the number 10 playmaker. Simone Pafundi, Wilfried Gnonto, Tommaso Baldanzi and Bruno Zapelli all show promise and Leicester City’s Cesare Casadei is the closest thing to an Italian Jude Bellingham. Awkwardly, only Baldanzi plays top-flight football frequently.
Looking forward to FIFA 2026, where is the healthy competition for Scamacca? Udinese’s Lorenzo Lucca is another tall prodigy (201cm) but still hasn’t found his feet at the top level. Then there’s Francesco Camarda, Milan’s 15-year-old who plays at U19 level, tenuously hailed as the future of Italian football.
The problems in Italy’s frontline are symptoms of a sinister disease that has eaten its way up from the foundations of calcio. The change must be forthcoming at club level so that Spalletti can turn the threat of extinction into rebellion.