Heartbroken but heroes: Conte's dreamers have restored Italy pride

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The Azzurri bowed out 6-5 on penalties after the craziest shootout in European Championship history, but they exceeded all expectations

The Gazzetta dello Sport had a simple message for the Italian nation ahead of Saturday’s Euro 2016 showdown with Germany: “Sing for them.” They did. In Bordeaux and all across the Italian nation. They sang their hearts out. Then Antonio Conte’s men played their hearts out. Again. This time, though, it wasn't enough. This time, the Azzurri fell short. But only just.

Five days after running themselves into the ground in a 2-0 defeat of reigning European champions Spain, they ultimately – perhaps inevitably – ran out of steam against the reigning world champions, succumbing to mental and physical exhaustion in one of the most topsy-turvy penalty shootouts the international game has ever seen after a 1-1 draw.

There were tears at the end, understandably, but sadness will eventually be replaced by pride. And rightly so.

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Euro 2016 cannot be viewed as a failure for Italy. They had, after all, arrived in France written off by all and sundry, dismissed as the weakest Azzurri squad of all time. Yet they turned in a tactical masterclass by dismissing the highest-ranked team in the tournament, Belgium, in their opening game before wearing down Sweden to progress to the knockouts with a game to spare.

"We started our journey at the European Championship with little credibility, not just from the Italian media but also the international media," Conte pointed out. "Everyone thought it was dark days for the Italian game but we are showing that, through hard work and organisation, and 23 players who are working hard, that we could do something extraordinary against Spain." They did just that.

Once again cast as underdogs, Italy outclassed La Roja. Just as against Belgium, they didn't rely on the traditional defensive values of the Italian game; they out-thought, outfought and outplayed their opponents. This was not a victory that could be lazily dismissed as a classic Catenaccio borefest. They triumphed 2-0, and had had seven shots on target - it's not as if Vicente del Bosque’s men hadn't been warned either, with legend Xavi having described Conte’s Italy as "a mix of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid" before the game.

It may have only been a last 16 encounter but this was vindication of everything Conte had been doing, everything he had been telling the press and the fans.

"I’ve been saying this since the start of my tenure," he snapped. "I don't tell lies. I'm not saying it for the sake of it. This is a squad of men and of good footballers."

They proved that once again in Bordeaux against Germany, where they went toe to toe with the reigning world champions for 120 gruelling minutes. Italy could, perhaps should, have won. After a cagey opening 30 minutes, the Azzurri finished both the first and second halves of normal time in the ascendancy.

Mesut Ozil's 65th-minute goal appeared to suck the life out of them yet they refused to give in, refused to stop believing - and drew level when Leonardo Bonucci converted a penalty awarded for a senseless handball in the area from Jerome Boateng.

Italy had no right to go on and win the game from there. They had one day's less rest, having run themselves into the ground against Spain, 24 hours after Germany had strolled past Slovakia - yet they forced extra-time and penalties. It was a crazy shootout that really could have gone either way. Ultimately, Germany came out on top, for the first time between the two nations in a competitive clash.

However, Conte's men have not let anyone down. On the contrary, as former Azzurri striker Christian Vieri stated before the quarter-final: "People are proud of this Italy; I am proud of these 23 players and the coach. I'm watching Italy with passion and I see that the players are full of enthusiasm. They are in love with the Azzurri shirt and all the values that it brings. When you play like that, the result isn't as important."

It won’t feel that way to the players, of course. Not right now. Defeat is never easy to swallow - particularly one as cruel as this. Bonucci had called Conte's squad "23 dreamers" and their dream is now over in frustrating circumstances.

But while they may have lost to Germany, every single player clad in blue has won the respect and hearts of their compatriots for reviving a proud footballing nation. Italian football isn't dead, far from it. As the Azzurri fans had all sang so passionately in unison before kick-off in Bordeaux: "Brothers of Italy, Italy has awoken!"

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