Italy's Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco omissions not surprising
Excluding Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco from his squad for the European Championship isn't a decision Antonio Conte will have taken lightly. Already during the final international break of 2015, he acknowledged that he would have to be "very cold" in his decision about whether to select them or not. It was the offseason at the time in MLS, and neither were called up for the friendlies against Belgium and Romania.
Both were overlooked again over the last international break at the end of March. MLS had resumed by then. The season was three games old. Early days, admittedly, and one can understand Conte having reservations about match fitness after a three-month break. However, this hasn't stopped him picking players before. Remember that the structure of the football season in Europe means that the first international fortnight usually comes only a week after the return of Serie A.
Their absence for the Spain and Germany matches felt telling. It wasn't as if Pirlo and Giovinco lacked minutes. They'd clocked up 270 for New York City and Toronto, respectively. Giovinco had already scored twice. Some pointed to a scheduling issue. There was an MLS playoff round smack in the middle of the friendlies. But you can't escape the feeling that if either seriously figured in Conte's plans, they would have been in Coverciano, the Italian national team's training ground. Incidentally, the last time Pirlo and Giovinco were there was last October's international break.
Make no mistake: Conte respects both of them, and that respect is mutual. Pirlo came out of international retirement when he learned that his old Juventus boss was replacing Cesare Prandelli. Giovinco also had a strong bond with Conte. Memories of his former manager defending him from the crowd's whistles towards the end of his time in Turin live long.
For all the passion and emotion he brings to his job, however, Conte is not sentimental. Upon reviewing Italy's qualifying campaign, he will have asked himself if either played a major role in getting the team to Euro 2016. Truth be told, they didn't. Pirlo featured in the qualifiers against Azerbaijan, Croatia and Malta, while Giovinco's one and only start under Conte was in the friendly with Albania when he was still a Juventus player.
One imagines their decision to stay put in January rather than seek a move back to Europe will not have done the respective candidacies much good. Emanuele Giaccherini and Ciro Immobile heeded Conte's call to return to Italy and play regularly after finding themselves on the fringes at Sunderland and Sevilla. Both are in his provisional 30-man squad. Would things have been different if Pirlo had heard Inter out and moved back to San Siro for the remainder of the season? We'll never know.
Both players were presumably in a difficult position. Pirlo would probably have been aware of the heat his former teammate David Beckham got at the Los Angeles Galaxy when he abandoned them for a loan spell at Milan. New York City FC would have probably wished to avoid a reverse Frank Lampard, who chose to extend his stay at Manchester City at a time when everyone was expecting him to start the season with one of MLS' newest franchises in 2015. As for Giovinco, he is the league's MVP. Missing a significant chunk of the MLS season -- March through June -- would have been a bad look. Toronto would have been loath to let him go and why would Giovinco head back to Italy when he is enjoying his football so much across the Atlantic?
Neither, it must be said, was finished from Conte's point of view when they made that decision. He wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and sent one of his assistants, Marco Scarpa, out to watch both of them closely when the new MLS season started. It seems Scarpa flew back unconvinced by the standard and intensity of the football in the U.S. There is still a stigma around any league outside the big five in Europe.
Although the news will be disappointing, it won't come as a shock to Pirlo or Giovinco. You get the impression Pirlo was expecting it. When La Gazzetta dello Sport asked him if he would consider his potential exclusion an "injustice," Pirlo replied: "No, because when you make the decision to come here, you know what you're getting into." He practically echoed what Conte said in his news conference on Tuesday that "if you choose to play in MLS, then in football terms, you pay the consequences."
Speaking late last week, Pirlo didn't sugarcoat MLS' lack of exposure in Europe. "It seems normal to me that the American league doesn't have the same reputation as a European one. MLS doesn't feature on TV as much as the other leagues, so it's more complicated for the coaching staff to follow. It's clear that anyone who plays in Belgium [like Stefano Okaka] or other countries with less quality still has the chance to play Champions League or Europa League football and this is the difference."
Even so, the fact that MLS isn't on Sky Italia or Mediaset shouldn't be an excuse -- Italians can find it on Eurosport -- and it's not one Conte will use as he has access to Wyscout and is as meticulous as they come. The question is this: Will Italy regret this? After all, Conte isn't exactly spoilt for choice. These aren't the days when the Azzurri had an embarrassment of riches and could afford to leave out the likes of Roberto Pruzzo, Evaristo Beccalossi, Gianfranco Zola or Christian Vieri and get away with it. Italy are seriously short of quality in midfield and prolific goalscorers in attack.
Midfielder Marco Verratti will miss the tournament through injury, as will Claudio Marchisio. Thiago Motta isn't fit. Daniele De Rossi didn't feature in Conte's last squad and was having trouble getting into the Roma team under Luciano Spalletti. Jorginho has had a great season with Napoli but has played little more than a minute for Italy.
Up front, it isn't much better. Eder scored only once after moving from Sampdoria to Inter in January. Graziano Pelle ended the season well but went 13 games without a goal until mid-March and spent time out of Ronald Koeman's favour at Southampton. Fitness has been an issue for Immobile and Simone Zaza is fourth choice at Juventus.
The reality though is that any outcry in Toronto and MLS circles about Conte overlooking Giovinco hasn't been matched in Italy, where instead fans are asking how Genoa's Leonardo Pavoletti, Serie A's highest scoring Italian, and Andrea Belotti, the best in 2016, didn't make the latest cut. Explaining his thought process on Tuesday, Conte revealed he sees Giovinco in the same terms as Lorenzo Insigne: a wide-attacker, not as a second striker. Given Conte's intentions to play a 3-5-2, even Insigne's place is apparently at risk. Giovinco and Insigne are not wing-backs. This won't have crossed Conte's mind or influenced his decision making, but frankly there would be far greater outrage if he selected Giovinco at Insigne's expense.
Ultimately it comes down to perception. There has always been scepticism about players' performances outside the top five leagues. Pelle, for example, scored 55 goals in two years at Feyenoord and never got a look in under Prandelli. A regular under Conte, should this not be an argument in favour of Giovinco's inclusion? Not exactly. It would be relevant if Pelle was capped while still playing in the Eredivisie. Instead he was only brought into the fold after proving himself in the Premier League. Prior to that, he was judged on bad experiences at home with Lecce, Parma and Samp.
Compared with Pelle, Giovinco was a lot more successful at home, but never enough to make anyone believe he was going to be the player around whom Italy revolved. Those memories are simultaneously hard to shift and hold more weight than the news and Youtube clips of what he is doing now in North America. Instead ,there is more regret about Mario Balotelli, a greater talent who, after lighting up the Euros four years ago, has lost his way completely.
To not even make the 30, though? It seems harsh on Giovinco. However, one suspects if Italy go out and embarrass themselves, no one will turn around and say it would have been different with him involved. A major tournament without Pirlo is the end of an era. One without the Atomic Ant? Well, with all due respect, that's different. Even so, Conte will be hoping a mountain isn't made out of an anthill.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.