Bonucci epitomizes Italy’s struggle amid adversity

Perhaps nobody epitomizes Italy’s struggle through adversity

more than defender Leonardo Bonucci.

Placed under investigation for match-fixing last month, Bonucci

has been thrust into a starting role at the European Championship

following injuries to fellow defenders Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio

Chiellini.

Bonucci made a similar transformation from benchwarmer to

protagonist with Juventus, helping the squad win the Serie A title

last month.

He credits a mental coach with his sudden success.

”There was a lot of discussion about me, but I always kept the

focus on football, which is my job,” Bonucci said Thursday.

”Having dreamt as a kid to play with the national team shirt

helped. That’s what I thought about during the tough times.

”And my wife, who will soon make me a father, helped me push

aside the things that were said, and my personal motivator

(Alberto) Ferrarini helped me grow. I’ve gone from the tribune in

Serie B to a starter with the national team. I work on thinking

positively with him.”

Bonucci isn’t just a starter now, he’s also become a leader for

Italy.

When temperamental forward Mario Balotelli nearly exploded with

anger after scoring against Ireland, it was Bonucci who rushed to

place his hand over the striker’s mouth.

”I played with him on Inter’s youth squad and I know him better

than anyone else here,” Bonucci explained. ”He was just 17 but I

was already scolding him back then. That’s just how he is, and

that’s why I took care of him during the celebration against

Ireland. And he then thanked me for that.

”Unfortunately sometimes he does crazy things. He’s spontaneous

but he’s a good kid,” Bonucci added. ”If he can smile a bit more,

he’s a player who can make the difference for us. He’s

unpredictable, he’s strong and he’s powerful.”

While Italy will probably rely on Balotelli for goals in the

quarterfinals against England on Sunday, Bonucci and Barzagli will

have the job of stopping England star Wayne Rooney.

Barzagli returned from a calf injury against Ireland, but now

Chiellini is out with a left leg muscle injury. Bonucci also plays

with Barzagli and Chiellini at Juventus, where his performances

helped persuade manager Antonio Conte to employ a three-man

defense.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli also used a three-man defense in

the Azzurri’s opening two matches, although it’s unclear what

strategy Prandelli will use against Rooney.

”We’ve started to study him, although England isn’t just

Rooney,” Bonucci said. ”He’s very skilled, but we need to play as

a collective to negate their excellent quality up front.”

A couple of weeks ago, Bonucci was under the spotlight when he

stayed with Italy while fullback Domenico Criscito was cut from

squad because he, too, was placed under investigation for

match-fixing.

”It upset me that he was cut out for non-football reasons,”

Bonucci said. ”Making a decision like that is never easy and

whatever choice the federation made there were going to be pros and

cons.”

Bonucci is being investigated for allegedly helping fix matches

while he played for Bari in Serie B in 2009-10. He joined Juventus

the following season.

Police showed up at Italy’s training center in Florence to

notify Criscito that he was under investigation, while Bonucci had

already been called in for questioning by a prosecutor in Bari.

”I was just thinking about playing football,” Bonucci said.

”I said everything I needed to say in Bari.”