Italy have had a solid qualifying campaign for Euro 2012, which has seen the side go unbeaten and concede a mere two goals. The side has also looked impressive in some recent friendlies, beating World Champions Spain 2-1 back in August. Although it could be argued that the Spain squad fielded that day was somewhat experimental, it is still quite an achievement for a national side that only a year previously was in crisis and bereft of confidence. A new found optimism has been sweeping across the nation, and in particular the Italian squad. Andrea Ranocchia has recently stated that he believes Italy have all the right ingredients to go on and become European Champions in Poland/Ukraine, with his claim further fuelled by Dejan Stankovic’s belief that Italy are one of the top three nations in the world.
2006 was a great year for football, and in particular the nation of Italy. The Azzurri became World Champions, with their inspirational captain Fabio Cannavaro leading the way and driving the team to a memorable World Cup campaign triumph. Andrea Pirlo took every game by the scruff of the neck and fans of other nations could only look on in disbelief at his range of passing and ability to control games from start to finish.
Four years later, the national side was in disarray. The only ever World Cup winners to be eliminated in the group stages, the Italian FA decided to take actions. Roberto Donadoni had been sacked after a quarter final knock-out in Euro 2008 and Marcello Lippi couldn’t repeat his 2006 success in South Africa, but the Italian FA realised that the problems ran much deeper than just the manager. Serie A clubs were immediately given stronger restrictions on bringing in non-EU players (a rule which has since been relaxed slightly), with the belief that this would encourage clubs to give more playing time to Italian players and indeed develop Italian youngsters. Marcello Lippi stepped down and the reins were handed over to Cesare Prandelli, who had much success with Fiorentina, being named Serie A manager of the year in 2008.
Despite a somewhat shaky start, which began with a 1-0 defeat to Côte d’Ivoire, the team has grown in confidence and an understanding is starting to become apparent between the players. Since that opening defeat, Prandelli has actually only lost one other game, which was also a friendly against the Republic of Ireland, and the manager could be forgiven for trying to be quite experimental in that match. The team qualified from their group with relative ease and Prandelli is likely to use his remaining matches before Euro 2012 to decide on the players who he feels deserve to be in the squad.
Trust and faith has been one of the key components of Prandelli’s management. The manager has often clashed with Mario Balotelli, yet appears to have gained the respect of the player, who has cited him as a great influence. Prandelli understands that Balotelli could be a massive part of the national set-up, but hasn’t been afraid to show authority to the Man City striker, dropping him from the squad as punishment for his attitude. Prandelli also took Super Bario along to an Italian prison, where he was mobbed by inmates who cheered him on, ignoring 2006 World Cup hero Gianluigi Buffon who also turned up! Whether this sort of activity has an effect on the sometimes troubled player is debatable, yet it does show that Prandelli is divulging time into his players and appears to be looking to man manage some of the younger players in his squad.
Prandelli has also shown a lot of faith in Sebastian Giovinco, a player who struggled to get recognition at Juventus, yet finds himself rejuvenated at Parma. Giovinco has been praised by his club manager Franco Colomba as a player who has many similarities to Lionel Messi and the player himself has praised Messi, considering him a major reason as to why players of his stature and size have been given a chance in the modern game. The 5ft 4 midfielder was largely ignored at hometown club Juventus, but now finds himself becoming a key part of the national team, being given creative freedom often and encouraged to get forward as much as possible. Many people started to sit up and take notice of Giovinco (myself included) after his part in Parma’s demolition of former club Juventus last season, in which his side won 4-1 away from home. Giovinco is growing in confidence and is slowly finding himself becoming a key part of Prandelli’s plans.
The same can be said for the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Ranochhia himself, who are both growing in confidence and gaining valuable experience at a relatively young age. Marchisio himself is a player that has often struggled to find a position in which he can truly flourish, with Niccolo Conte of Serie A Talk criticising his performances last year, yet he has all of a sudden come to life and scored his first goal for his country against Serbia in the 1-1 draw at the weekend. I always felt that Alberto Aquilani was slightly unlucky in his time at Liverpool as many of his good performances were overlooked, yet Prandelli has always kept the player in his thoughts and realises the advantages he can bring to the squad. In truth, the manager has almost completely stripped the club down and started from the beginning.
Italy has often been a country that values experience over youth in football, yet this ideology is starting to change, with young managers like Massimiliano Allegri and Antonio Conte given a chance to manage some of the countries’ top football clubs and many clubs are changing their philosophies and starting to give younger players a lot more playing time. AC Milan now have a new contract policy which mirrors that of clubs like Arsenal, in which players over the age of 30 are only given one-year contract extensions, and the club’s signing of the exciting Stephan El Shaarawy can only be good news for the Italian national team, as many teams are now keen to develop young Italian players.
The nation is enjoying a much more confident national side, but it is far from a true renaissance. Talk of winning Euro 2012 may be a bit too premature, and instead the tournament should be treated as a way for the newly formed squad to gain experience. Although it would be wrong to make comparisons to the great Italian team of 2006, the current crop of players is yet to feel like an actual squad like they did and the building process still feels like it is ongoing. Many news faces are coming in and out of the squad and it can often seem that Prandelli is yet to decide on a squad of players that he can rely on.
The Azzurri has also been involved in some unnecessary arguing in the past few weeks, as there has been controversy over the inclusion of Roma striker Daniel Osvaldo. Osvaldo was a player I felt Roma paid over the odds for, yet he has so far been fairly impressive this season, with three goals in his opening five games. Right wing policitians have criticised the call-up of Osvaldo due to his Argentinean birth and upbringing, and the player did himself few favours by suggesting that he is “more Italian than some politicians in the country”. Many cited that Alessandro Matri was more deserving of a call-up, yet once again Prandelli has shown faith in a young player and came out in Osvaldo’s defence claiming that he is the “future of Italy”. This sort of outrage baffles me, and I’m going to bet those same politicians were not spouting the same sort of nonsense when Argentine born Mauro Camoranesi helped his country to the 2006 World Cup.
Italy is going through a period of cultural change, and although there are still racism problems, they are held by a minority and the atmosphere in the country is changing. Balotelli, a player who was once abused for the colour of his skin, often comes onto the pitch to a massive roar from the Italian fans and the player himself has often spoke of his pride being Italian (this is of course when he is not busy playing with his iPad on the substitutes bench). Antonio Cassano was shunned by former national team managers because of his erratic behaviour, but Prandelli has shown much faith in the controversial Milan striker.
However, Cassano can often be hit or miss and his age means that he is not a player that can really be considered for the future. With the current crop of players, I don’t get a feeling that they have one (or even more) truly stand out players that can push the team beyond. The potential is there with the likes of Balotelli & Giuseppe Rossi, but both players are still improving and although they may have an impact at Euro 2012, it will be more of a learning curve for both of them. The memorable Italian sides always had at least one player you could stare in awe at, with notable examples being Paolo Rossi, Roberto Baggio and Fabio Cannavaro. It is up to one of these diamonds in the rough to step up into that role and rally the nation forward. Italy have a long history of talented and gifted footballers, but it currently feels like they are in a limbo period and need a new generation to step up and make names for themselves.
My personal feeling is that Italy can have an interesting Euro 2012, but talk of winning the tournament of being one of the top three sides in the world is bit too optimistic. There are a lot of talented players there with a great man in charge of them, but it still feels like the squad is in the development stages. They will cause problems for a lot of teams, but their success will be dependent on how their developing stars perform in a major tournament situation and whether or not they can really gel together. Truthfully, I feel that this tournament will give us a better idea of what to expect from Italy in the near future, as they could either crumble and be back to building the foundations once again, or set up for a interesting World Cup campaign…
A decent tournament and it might not be long before we are given memorable World Cup moments like this from the Azzurri once again.
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