Italy claims first gold since 1987 with biggest margin of victory in history of European final

They were the team that nobody knew what to expect from. A gold medal contender that hadn’t played a game in two years. A European finalist only in the championship game because their defending champion semi-final opponent was forced to forfeit due to a COVID outbreak.

Right up until kickoff of the IFAF European Championship game in Malmö, Sweden, Team Italy was untested and unknown. A question mark facing a proven Team Sweden on their own home soil.

What the wild card Italians proved to be was dominant on scale never before seen in a European final, blowing out the shell-shocked Swedes by a score of 41-14. In the 14 gold medal games since Italy claimed the very first Euros back in 1983, no team has ever scored more points and their 27-point margin of victory surpassed the 26-0 1989 final between Great Britain and Finland for the most lopsided championship in the history of the tournament.

“It’s been a long journey to get to this. I think we all did an awesome job, not just today, but everyday since we committed to this program,” Italian head coach Davide Giuliano said after the game. “Seven years of hard work and dedication. Now it’s time to enjoy it.”

The Italians‘ start to finish domination began on the opening kickoff, when tiny Tamsir Seck returned the ball to mid-field and was hit late out of bounds. They got the ball in excellent field position at the Sweden 35-yard line and dual citizen running back Mike Gentili did the rest, finishing with a patient 15-yard touchdown run behind a stellar pull from Francesco Runco that set the tone for the rest of the game.

Team Italy QB Luke ZAHRADKA (7) passes the football during the Sweden vs Italy EC Championship game. Malmö Stadion, Malmö, Sweden, October 31, 2021. Photo by Mikkel Bo Rasmussen / 1st Down Photo (@1stdownphoto)

Sweden could muster no response and soon it was the turn of speedster Jordan Bouah to shine. The former Ottawa Redblack blazed down the right sideline for a 58-yard catch from quarterback Luke Zahradka, then beat Josef Nguzo hard on the post for a 13-yard score. The only glimmer of hope for the Swedes was a missed extra point from Matteo Felli as the visitors went up 13-0.

Again, the Swedish offense came up empty, but a big hit from former Montreal Alouette William James forced a Simone Alinovi fumble on the next drive. Noah Allsten recovered, but despite the best efforts of scrambling quarterback Philip Juhlin, an offensive first down would not result. Alinovi soon got some redemption with a 30-yard gain to get the ball rolling and the Italians methodically marched the field, going back to the Parma standout on a three-yard out to complete another touchdown drive.

Sweden’s luck got no better, as their next drive ended quickly when Giacomo Insom punched the ball out of the grasp of running back Emil Knutsson and Marco Taddia recovered. Four plays later, Gentili trucked big Aslan Zetterberg and raced 14 yards for his second touchdown of the game with only more heartbreak to follow for BD Kennedy’s squad.

A 16-yard Timmy Göransson run looked like a much-needed spark for the Swedes, but Juhlin soon found himself stuffed on what looked like fourth and inches. A spectacular leaping grab from Alinovi later and the Italians were at the goal line. They were stopped three times but unlike their opponent converted on fourth down, with Alinovi catching the one-yard touchdown pass after a cheeky rub from Stefano Di Tunisi got him open.

Juhlin had one more desperate drive to end the half and succeeded in moving the ball, but his final pass was nearly picked off by Zachary Quattrone and the 45-yard field goal attempt from Jakob Gorecki as time expired went wide left. The Italians entered the break up by an unprecedented score of 34-0 and it already seemed time to hand out the hardware.

Team Italy QB Luke ZAHRADKA (7) looking for an open receiver during the Sweden vs Italy EC Championship game. Malmö Stadion, Malmö, Sweden, October 31, 2021. Photo by Mikkel Bo Rasmussen / 1st Down Photo (@1stdownphoto)

Clearly upset with his team’s initial performance, Philip Juhlin came out firing with a long drive to begin the second half. The Swedes succeeded in moving the ball but were forced to punt once again before finally getting the lucky bounce they had needed all game. Returner Simone Boni made a couple of tacklers miss before Bartoscz Wozniak jarred the ball loose and Denny John recovered the Italian football inside the 10-yard line. After a penalty on the defense, Juhlin rolled out and found Filip Wetterberg for a three-yard touchdown to break the shut-out, with Filip Jönsson adding a two-point conversion.

The Italians wasted no time getting their offense going again, but a highlight reel deep touchdown from Jordan Bouah was called back for holding. When Zahradka looked deep for Bouah again, William James was there to pick it off and it looked like Sweden finally had the momentum all on their side. That quickly ended when a big Marco Taddia sack on fourth down ended yet another drive in a turnover.

A couple drives later in the fourth quarter, the Italians finally got their mojo back. Zahradka dropped it in the bucket to Alinovi for a 65-yard gain, only saved from a being touchdown by a desperate horse collar from Victor Blomback, and Nicholas Diaco ran it in the remaining one-yard as the wildcat quarterback to extend the healthy lead.

Juhlin responded with another long drive, finding the Finnkampen hero Matthias Gauthier for a nine-yard touchdown, but this one was over long before Sweden’s two-point attempt fell incomplete. The remaining few minutes were purely academic as the Italian bench counted down the seconds to their 41-14 gold medal victory.

For Team Sweden, Philip Juhlin went 18-of-30 for 150 yards passing and two touchdowns, while also providing their primary threat on the ground. Edvin Taborda led the way with 45 yards receiving, while Sebastian Gauthier had a team high six tackles and Malcolm Engstrom added a sack. William James was the MVP for the silver medalists thanks to his interception and forced fumble.

“I have to give Italy credit for playing an excellent game. They were very solid in all aspects. In a game versus a very good team, you cannot make the mistakes we made. We had too many penalties, we did not win the big play battle and we did not win on some critical situations,” Team Sweden head coach BD Kennedy said of the loss.

“I am very proud of what we accomplished on this journey. We have some very good young talent and we have some solid older players. We beat Russia, Great Britain and Finland to get the opportunity to play in the championship game. We will regroup and move forward.”

Team Sweden QB Philip Juhlin (2) is sacked by Team Italy LB Nicholas ALFIERI (24) during the Sweden vs Italy EC Championship game. Malmö Stadion, Malmö, Sweden, October 31, 2021. Photo by Mikkel Bo Rasmussen / 1st Down Photo (@1stdownphoto)

For the Italians, the clear MVP was quarterback Luke Zahradka, the proud dual citizen from Franklin Square, New York. Zahradka was 20-of-24 for 283 yards, three touchdowns and a pick as he dissected the Swedish defense. The beneficiaries were receivers Jordan Bouah, with 108 yards and a touchdown, and Simone Alinovi, who has 112 yards and two scores. Defensive linemen Lorenzo Dalle Piagge, Giacomo Insom and Marco Taddia were noticeable presences in Sweden’s backfield all night.

In the aftermath of such an unexpectedly lopsided win on the continent’s biggest stage, there are bound to be some who question the merits of an Italian team with so many prominent American-born dual citizens, including Zahradka and defensive standouts Nick Alfieri and Cody Pastorino. There were no hired mercenaries here though and one needs to look no further than Massachusetts-born running back Mike Gentili, who rushed for 52 yards and two touchdowns, collapsed to a knee and overcome with emotion to see the real desire from those players to bring a title back to Italy.

There is no doubt that in that moment, Gentili was thinking of his late father and his proud Italian lineage, the very reasons he dropped everything to pursue a football dream and carry the flag of his ancestors into battle. With the European title firmly Italy’s for the first time since 1987, it is safe to say they would be very proud.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.