Italy sealed their place in the last 16 at Euro 2024 with a late draw against Croatia, their dramatic equaliser created by centre-back Riccardo Calafiori. We take a closer look at one of the breakout stars of the tournament.

You should never judge a book by its cover.

You should, however, absolutely judge an Italian defender by their hair.

When fans first clapped eyes on centre-back Riccardo Calafiori’s flowing locks and accompanying hairband, thoughts were immediately evoked of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro. Italy always seem to be better when they have defenders with either lots of hair, or not very much at all.

The Azzurri evolved from those legendary figures to the less hairy but equally scary Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci (but not before Cannavaro shaved his head), and so Italy continued as a defensive force to be reckoned with.

Luciano Spalletti’s side came into Euro 2024 at a crossroads, though, with it set to be the first major tournament Italy have played without Chiellini or Bonucci since the 2006 World Cup. The two former Juventus defenders were a crucial part of the side that won Euro 2020, but current manager Spalletti was forced to turn to young, fresh players at the back.

In 25-year-old Alessandro Bastoni and 22-year-old Calafiori, Italy have a pair of centre-backs seemingly with every attribute required of a modern defender. Bastoni was already fairly well known, having helped Inter to the Champions League final and Serie A title in the last two seasons.

Outside of Italy, at least, Calafiori was a lesser-known quantity coming into the tournament, though.

At 22 years and 27 days old when he lined up in Italy’s opener against Albania, he became the second-youngest Italy defender to play a match in European Championship history after Maldini (19 years, 350 days).

Calafiori impressed in the 2-1 win, completing 99 of 106 passes (93.4%), successful with both of his dribble attempts, winning six of nine duels, including all three of his aerial duels, and winning possession five times.

Italy struggled across the board in their second game against Spain, largely unable to keep a lid on explosive wingers Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal, but it was Calafiori who was the unfortunate man to take centre stage. After yet another dribble and cross from Williams, Gianluigi Donnarumma palmed the ball straight into the unwitting Calafiori’s legs, whose resulting own goal decided the game.

Italy’s crucial final Group B game against Croatia looked to be heading for another defeat, with Luka Modric’s goal threatening to leave Spalletti’s men in third and hoping to sneak into the last 16 rather than already having it confirmed.

Then, with a goal looking beyond Italy, in the last minute of eight added on at the end of the game, Calafiori decided to venture forward, picking up the ball at the back from Donnarumma and driving at the Croatia midfield. After playing a one-two with Davide Frattesi, he laid a perfectly weighted pass to his left before being clattered by Josip Sutalo, allowing an unmarked Mattia Zaccagni to bend in a vital equaliser that confirmed Italy’s spot in the round of 16.

The Bologna defender was in tears at the final whistle, relieved he had made amends for his own goal in the defeat to Spain.

“I honestly don’t know where I got the energy from,” Calafiori said after the match. “It was a really tough game. I needed to give something to this team that welcomed me so well, I didn’t want to end the journey here, so I wanted to give something positive.

“I couldn’t even think, I was just so happy. More than anything, it was all the emotions I felt inside me over the last few days, as I didn’t have time to process [the own goal] because we had to focus on the next match. It just came out.

“I wanted to make up for the own goal and make a positive contribution.”

It wasn’t all good news, though. Earlier in the game, Calafiori earned a yellow card, his second of the tournament, meaning he will be suspended for Italy’s last-16 clash with Switzerland.

So, what will they be missing?

There had already been some hype around Calafiori in Italy prior to his Euro 2024 performances. Signed from Swiss side FC Basel last summer, Thiago Motta made him a key part of his impressive Bologna team. Against all odds, they finished fifth in Serie A and will play Champions League football next season.

Calafiori played a significant role in Bologna’s achievements. Of defenders in Serie A in 2023-24 who made a minimum of 10 appearances, he was fifth for interceptions per 90 minutes (1.9), second for recoveries per 90 (7.5), ninth for passes per 90 (68.6), 14th for duel success (63.1%) and joint-fourth for overall assists (5).

Calafiori xA Bologna 2023-24

His partnership with Sam Beukema has blossomed; they started 15 of Bologna’s 38 Serie A games together at centre-back, with their 10 wins the most of any CB pairing in the division last season (D3 L2).

The difference with and without Calafiori in the team was stark. He featured in 30 Serie A games last season, of which Bologna won 16 and lost just three (D11), averaging 1.6 goals per game, 0.8 goals against, and 2.0 points per game. In the eight games without Calafiori, they won just two, drawing three and losing three, with an average of 0.8 goals per game, 1.0 goals against, and just 1.1 points per game. It should be noted, though, that those games missed did include clashes with Inter, Milan and Juventus (D1 L2).

Calafiori Bologna with-without 23-24

All that was enough to impress Spalletti, not just to name Calafiori in his squad for this summer’s tournament, but to start him against Albania despite it being only his third cap. He might not have been in that initial XI had Francesco Acerbi or Giorgio Scalvini been fit, but he has largely repaid the faith shown in him by the former Napoli boss.

At Euro 2024, following Italy’s draw with Croatia, only three defenders had made more than Calafiori’s six interceptions, while only eight made more recoveries than his 13. He has proven himself strong in the air, winning seven of his nine aerial duels, while only Joshua Kimmich (9) has created more chances from open play among defenders than his four.

The comparisons to Maldini were inevitable given his nationality and look, but Calafiori has actually insisted it is an English defender who he considers his style to be most similar to.

His penchant for wandering into midfield is akin to the role of John Stones at club level, and Calafiori highlighted the Man City defender is his “reference”.

Calafiori carries Euro 2024

“His style of play is closest to mine,” Calafiori said. “Stones is my reference. It’s not off the cuff when I go into midfield. It’s following the guidelines of the coach. He saw me in this role. I’ve learned so much from him. The coach [Motta] is revolutionary, smart, demanding and clear in what he wants.”

Reports suggest new Juventus boss Motta wants Calafiori to join him in Turin, while Premier League giants Man City and Liverpool have also been linked. It would certainly be interesting to see him at City playing alongside Stones, presumably taking it in turns to terrorise opposition midfields from deep.

It would be a shame if Italy were to go out to Switzerland in the last 16 as it would mean we have already seen the last of Calafiori at Euro 2024 (no offence Swiss fans, we hear you disagreeing).

Calafiori is likely to be one of the faces of Italy’s backline for years to come, though. He is so much more than hair and Italian vibes, but a little nostalgia never hurt anyone.

Our football newsletter ‘Stat, Viz, Quiz’ is going all in on Euro 2024 this summer, so sign up to receive exclusive content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.