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Italy's start to Euro 2016 shows you should never underestimate them

When the band starts up at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy on Wednesday night and Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon begins his famous rendition of the national anthem, notice the team will only sing the first verse and the chorus of Inno di Mameli. The second is omitted for reasons of brevity and that's probably just as well because it goes a little something like this: "We were for centuries downtrodden, derided, because we are not a people, because we are divided."

While a product of its time -- the anthem was written 24 years before Italy's unification in 1871 -- it does opens a window onto one side of the national character and, in football terms, helps to explain a lot. Like for instance the fear of the worst, the sense of dread and fatalism about suffering humiliation. Before the Euros, the pessimism around this team assumed historic proportions.

Some went so far as to say it was the worst squad Italy had ever sent to a major tournament and La Gazzetta dello Sport even sought to get its excuses in early.

"If [Claudio] Marchisio and [Marco] Verratti were not injured," it wrote on the eve of the Belgium game. "If Pirlo hadn't gone over to the stars and stripes. If, but for a few hundredths of a co-efficient point, we were seeded. If there were [greater] collaboration between clubs and the national team. If Conte had more than a mediocre 40 percent of players to pick from [in Serie A]."

You could be forgiven for thinking you were reading Rudyard Kipling's famous poem just with the opposite message.

"Surprise us" the front page of La Gazzetta demanded. Expectations were low; Italy's strengths got minimised and their weaknesses magnified. La Repubblica picked up on how four of the players Conte was going to line up against Belgium had been relegated with Cesena in 2012. The inference was that Italy were deluding themselves if they honestly believed they could win a trophy they hadn't lifted in almost half a century.

They were written off and, even looking beyond it, the narrative didn't feel at all strategic even if the atmosphere it created around the squad had a familiar auspicious feel to it. "The fact Italy go into this tournament accompanied by criticism and not as favourites like in 2006 and 1982 gives me hope," Alessandro Del Piero explained to Gazzetta.

Italy are always at their best when their backs are against the wall. It brings a reaction out of them that galvanises and renders them so much greater than the sum of their parts. At each news conference at Casa Italia in Montpellier you could see how the criticism was only bringing this group of players closer together.

Daniele De Rossi stood up for Thiago Motta amid all the howls of derision that followed the decision to award him the No. 10 shirt, saying: "Whoever is making fun of Thiago should have a kickabout with him then wash their mouths out. He has won everything there is to win and we hope he wins something with the national team as well."

Marco Parolo, a member of the so-called Cesena Quattro, also smarted at how little confidence the media had in this team. "Why not let us play first and then we'll see how rubbish we are," he said.

You can imagine Conte sticking the press clippings up on the dressing room wall for motivation. "We'll see who is right," he anticipated. "Whether it's those who say we'll go home early or those who think we'll go far."

The 2-0 win over Belgium in their first game, though still early days, completely vindicated him. Italy didn't just win, they convinced and when asked what it meant, Buffon couldn't resist making a playful dig at the sceptics and haters. "It means we're a little less rubbish than before," he told Sky Italia.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Conte couldn't believe it would be enough on its own to change opinions on Italy; "otherwise it would mean everyone who gave one [about Italy and their chances at the Euros] does not understand anything..." They couldn't be that fickle, could they?

Proving people wrong is what's driving this Italy team. Take Emanuele Giaccherini for instance. Scouts said he wouldn't never amount to much. He was too small to make it in the big leagues and, at 16, he was working in a factory: the Italian Jamie Vardy. Even when Giaccherini rose through the divisions and earned a move to Juventus, the club with whom he won the league, rather than marvel at this rags to riches story, people still looked down their noses at him and put his inclusion in this squad down to cronyism on Conte's part.

They were left red-faced when Giaccherini of all people opened Italy's account at the Euros against the Belgians. It brought to mind an exchange Conte had with journalists while at Juventus. "Maybe if he was called Giaccherinho, you'd all be talking about him a lot more," he had scowled.

But a Brazilian name isn't enough on its own to win the approval of the Italian press corp as Eder, Italy's match winner against Sweden in the second game, has discovered. His goal was the 100th for Italy by an "Oriundo" -- a player of Italian heritage born in another country. It's a practice that began with Ermanno Aebi in 1920, a Swiss dual citizen, and has divided opinion and frequently been politicised ever since.

Irrespective of this argument, there was another more valid one questioning whether Eder should be in the squad or not on the grounds of form at club level, which seemed to have completely escaped him. Just as some thought Milan's Giacomo Bonaventura should have been picked ahead of Giaccherini, there was a sense of injustice that Eder, who has scored only once since moving to Inter in January, was going to France instead of Genoa's Leonardo Pavoletti, Serie A's highest scoring Italian, and Andrea Belotti, who was outscored only by Gonzalo Higuain in 2016.

What this tournament has demonstrated so far is that it's probably best to give Conte the benefit of the doubt. Eder, like Giaccherini, has justified his place in the 23 and De Rossi hit out at the squad's critics. "There are a lot of people who talk about football and give an opinion without being able to tell the difference between a football and a coconut." He added: "We don't have a [Eden] Hazard, an [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic or star players that catch the eye. We don't have a star like [Andrea] Pirlo. I don't feel like a star. More balance is needed when judging us. A lot of teams don't have our togetherness."

It's the intangibles that make this Italy team one to be reckoned with at the Euros. They're not immediately visible to the naked eye like pride, humility and spirit and the collective desire to avenge going out of back-to-back World Cups at the group stages. It's the defiant 'we'll show you' stance that they have taken with the media and the wider public. It's the strategy too. All of which is unseen. Buffon put it more poetically. He said Italy went into the tournament "with the lights off"; in the dark as the spotlight was turned on the others instead.

How far it can take them remains to be seen, although against Belgium, in particular, it did seem like Italy saw the light. "We've got to stay realistic," De Rossi insists. "We can't burden this group with excessive expectation."

All they have achieved up until now is to make an old lesson more relevant than ever: Never underestimate the Italians.

James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.


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