Another football tournament for national teams has just started and pundits are delighting in picking their own favourites. The names are always the same – Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. What about Italy? As history suggests, the Azzurri have always been one of the most unpredictable sides in such competitions. They have generally failed or disappointed whenever they were held up as potential winners, they have triumphed or positively impressed as they played the role of underdogs.
Perhaps this time, like never before, Italy can be regarded as authentic dark horses. Not differently from past competitions, mainly World Cups, the national team have been accompanied with a massive scandal in football.
In the beginning it was 1982. When the Azzurri left for Spain, Italian football was endeavouring to emerge from the Totonero, marked by illegal sports betting. Stadiums, regarded as immaculate places until then, were violated, as police handcuffed footballers in the changing rooms. For the first time, Italian football disclosed an underworld of shady men.
One of those involved players, Juventus striker Paolo Rossi, was suspended for two years and able to join the national team just in time for the World Cup. Head coach Enzo Bearzot was harshly criticised for his defensive style and for some resounding exclusions. What happened afterwards is widely known. After a lacklustre group stage, the Italians overwhelmed Argentina, Brazil, Poland and finally West Germany.
History repeated itself 24 years later. The national team were about to start their training camp at Coverciano when another, more serious scandal came to light. The Calciopoli affair involved clubs such as AC Milan, Fiorentina, Juventus and Lazio, general managers, journalists and referees. Key figures such as goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, captain Fabio Cannavaro and head coach Marcello Lippi were sent to the gallows for various reasons. Having additionally to deal with the injuries of Gennaro Gattuso and Gianluca Zambrotta, the Azzurri flew to Germany not being held in high esteem.
Against all odds, and similarly to 1982, Italy lifted the World Cup. As if by magic, those who had asked for Buffon, Cannavaro and Lippi to quit the national team were the first to lionise them and to celebrate the umpteenth “Italian miracle”. Following the electric mood of that summer, the trial took place and the involved clubs were punished. Indeed, Juventus were revoked the 2004-05 and 2005-06 national titles and relegated, for the first time in their history, in the second division. As sports newspapers said, Italian football was finally clean.
Six years have passed so far and the nation’s most popular sport is once more under the spotlight. Another betting scandal, Scommessopoli, has blown up and notable players have been arrested. Zenit St Petersburg left back Domenico Criscito had to leave the pre-Euros training camp as he is under inquiry with the charge of sports fraud. Juventus centre back Leonardo Bonucci has been similarly accused, but Italy coach Cesare Prandelli decided not to exclude him. The same applied to Gianluigi Buffon, current national team captain, under fire for another suspicious gambling. Needless to say, the coach raised controversies.
Yet, there are much more destabilising factors as Italy are going to encounter Spain in their debut match at Euro 2012. Firstly, the absence of a top-drawer centre-forward in the final squad has been pointed out. Many invoked the names of Juventus striker Alessandro Matri, particularly skilled in opening spaces for team-mates, and Inter Milan’s Giampaolo Pazzini, who was in troubled relationships with Prandelli during their years with Fiorentina.
Italy coach opted for tiny, gifted second strikers like Sebastian Giovinco, back from a personal record of 15 goals scored, and ex-Chelsea Fabio Borini, one of the few positive elements for Roma in this disillusioning season. Despite the presence of Antonio Di Natale, two-time Serie A best scorer in the last three seasons, the starting attacking duo should be formed by Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, both consistently excluded from predecessor Marcello Lippi.
Manchester City forward’s talent is undisputed, and he has contributed to win the Premier League. Yet, Prandelli openly reproached him for his conduct and threatened the 21-year-old talent to cut him off the final squad. Balotelli has repeatedly advocated the positive shift in his attitude and has always expressed his strong desire to play for Italy. Now a great opportunity to prove such a metamorphosis has come.
The case of Cassano is different. The Bari-born fantasista has been the team’s most prolific striker in the qualifiers, topped by Italy with eight victories, two draws, 17 goals scored and just two conceded. Having suffered cardiac problems after a match last autumn, he underwent heart surgery and stayed away from football grounds for nearly five months.
Defence appears to be the most fragile department. Prandelli has always been a prophet of the back four and since his appointment as national team manager has insisted on a three-player midfield plus one deep-lying forward. The dismal 0-3 loss in the friendly match against Russia mercilessly began to make Prandelli’s dogma wavering. This is why Italian fans may watch today a never-seen-before starting XI.
The Azzurri are expected to be fielded with a 3-5-2 formation. The rearguard, weakened by the injury of Andrea Barzagli, will rely upon Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci and, suprisingly, Daniele De Rossi. An all-able central midfielder, the Roma player will be fielded as centre back, a definitely whimsical role for him, and many doubts are accompanying such a hazard.
The five-player midfield should enhance the skills of wingers Federico Balzaretti and Christian Maggio, accustomed to perform with these tactics in their respective clubs. Playmaker Andrea Pirlo, a key player for Juventus to seal their 28th national title, will be the creative fulcrum. Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Nocerino, who provided decent displays throughout the season supported by a high amount of goals, may be possible outsiders.
Differently from past tournaments, this squad seems to lack experience. However, traditional enthusiasm and team spirit might overcome Spain, some players of which are likely to pay duty on their exhausting season, and the two other opponents, Croatia and Ireland.
The Azzurri have seldom played amazing football. Indeed, they have always been accused to be excessively defensive. But they know how to huddle together when they are under fire.
Yes, another “Italian miracle” is possible.
(Article originally posted on FootballSpeak)