It was a fun match to watch, and it is a little bit of a shame to think that the reserves should provide greater entertainment than the first team. Sometimes the most dynamic games are products of the lesser pathos, and after all, this is football too. Italy was utterly relaxed, already being in the World Cup, and so were Sweden, already being out of it. The teams resembled each other in some ways – they lacked their biggest stars and they were playing with no objective in mind other than that of showing some good football. To some extents they were successful.
Marcello Lippi said that he was satisfied at the end of the match. He has done this so often that the above sentence is probably the most repeated since the inauguration of our column. What varies, normally, is not the sentence but its tone. Most often it is defensive – ‘Mr Lippi, can a team like the Azzurri only win thanks to two own-goals by Kakha Kaladze? – Well, we deserved the win, and I am satisfied.’ This time, it may have reflected a more genuine sentiment. From most points of view, the Italian team really does seem ready for the World Cup, requiring no more than the peripheral trimmings that will let all the gears run smoothly. This is not to say that they are ready to win it – in terms of raw power, the Azzurri look quite unconvincing. If we take the confrontations against Holland as a cornerstone, we gain a very illuminating fresco. Lippi’s first game against them in 2005 was a 3-1 victory which hinted at the potential of the team. Then we have Roberto Donadoni’s Flying Circus in 2008, where the humiliating defeat by 3-0 gave us a measure of how terribly he had organised his team. Now we have Lippi’s second friendly, an insipid 0-0. It is a compromise between the two teams that preceded it, a middle-ground between the grandiose and disastrous squads of 2006 and 2008 respectively.
Even as the team does not (yet) look like a favourite for the World Cup, it nonetheless already looks efficient – and that is a lot. All, or almost all, of the players have familiarised themselves with the roles they are asked to play in, incompatibilities between talented individuals (say, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo) have been resolved or at least smoothed out, and the players have become attached to each other like a true team. The technical shortcomings in some departments of the squad – most notably, the lack of a true fantasista in the offence – means that any decent team can defeat Italy if they play to the best of their abilities, but Italy’s psychological and tactical discipline means that even the most powerful of teams will trip against the Azzurri unless they play to the very best of their abilities. It is an interesting approach to football, and one that Lippi appears to have perfected. The idea is that class and talent are useless unless you create the groundwork of psychic cohesion and morale which are necessary to sustain it, and if the architecture for this collective edifice requires the sacrifice of some very talented workers, then so be it. The individual always supports the team, never the other way round. Frustrating as his philosophy may be for the supporters, it is not an untenable position – after all, Holland was fielding their best talent, but they seemed incapable of executing as a team. Nations like Argentina may have similar problems, and their talent may not be enough against the iron spirit of the Italians. Only the summer will tell if Lippi’s approach was enlightened or delusional.
The next friendly is in March. It is a long way from now, and it will be interesting to see how they take to the field again. In the meantime, leaving great space to the youngsters was a good idea. Giorgio Chiellini was the man of the moment, of course, and this is great. It injected some very much needed confidence and charisma into the Juventus defender. Until Wednesday, he had always been living in the shadow of Fabio Cannavaro. Now, he may go to the World Cup as a man in full, a footballer of his own. Great promise was also shown by Federico Marchetti, who finally got a taste of the Azzurri starter’s shirt. The man is being groomed. When Gianluigi Buffon hangs up his gloves to the post, Marchetti will already be there to pick them up. It is early to make any definite statements, but who knows – if he keeps up his growth rate, he may already start threatening Buffon’s throne by the 2012 European Championships. He brushed away the competition of Marco Amelia and Morgan De Sanctis with a stroke of his hand, and at his age, that is a very impressive feat.
The rest of the players are unlikely to go anywhere in the immediate future, but they will be ready over the middle-term for whoever picks up the team after Lippi is done. Let us say that it was an investment for the future. The present still leaves room for some worries, but it could be much worse. France, Holland, Argentina and Portugal all give us a measure of how badly a group of stellar talents can play if they are not well-organised. On the other hand, teams like Brazil, Germany, England and Spain seem much more threatening than the Azzurri at the moment. It will be tough – with the holders of all nineteen trophies played so far already qualified, South Africa 2010 looks to be the hardest tournament in the history of the World Cup. We would not want it to be any other way. The greater the effort, the brighter the glory – and South Africa looks to be the greatest challenge yet to be won. Let’s give it a run for its money.