Here we are. ‘Neither hard nor easy,’ were the words chosen by Marcello Lippi to describe Italy’s group. He followed this with the usual fluff on how no team should be underestimated, and to some extents of course he is right. Any team that has reached these levels must be of a certain quality. Brazil Coach Dunga warned Italy that Paraguay must be handled with care, and Slovakia include a few players of high quality – notably Napoli midfielder Marek Hamšik, who is superb, but also Martin Škrtel, who is an experienced central defender, and Róbert Vittek, a capable finisher in the box. Nonetheless the group must be called for what it is, and it is a comparatively easy group. Italy should qualify first, which is good news, because a second place means a probable combo of Netherlands and Brazil for the last 16 and quarter-finals respectively.
Once the first stage is past, things will get complicated. Group F is paired with Group E, so Italy’s adversary for the last 16 will almost certainly be one between Cameroon, Japan or Denmark (our money is on Cameroon). If they progress that far, it will be the last match that Italy can hope to play as favourites. The quarter-finals will pit them against one between Spain or Brazil, unless the Ivory Coast manages a minor miracle. Then the semi-finals will bring Germany, Argentina or France – probably the former, given the disastrous managerial state of the other two teams.
To the extent that anything at all can be predicted in football, this World Cup gives us five linear groups and three chaotic ones. The riddles are Groups A, B and G. The obvious favourites for them are France, Argentina and Brazil respectively, but the variables are way too numerous to allow for reliable predictions. A game between a strong team and a weak one is predictable, one between two strong teams is hard, and one between two weak teams is absolutely impossible to read. France and Argentina are both deceptively weak, and Brazil, while strong, is pitted in the group of death. One or two of these three teams will not emerge at the top of their group. Uruguay from Group A and South Korea from Group B are both bound for early exits, but the other six teams could all qualify as either first- or second-placed. Nigeria, for instance, as all African teams at their first World Cup in their continent, will have enough fire in them to prevail over Argentina, if the Albiceleste play as poorly as they did in the qualifying campaign. Likewise France has shown such poverty in their game that they could lose points to an organised Mexico team or to the poor but hugely motivated South Africa.
As for Brazil, for all of their quality it is unrealistic to expect nine points from them in a group which includes the Ivory Coast and Portugal. The African team in this group stands a remarkably solid chance of passing – they only need to play a strong first game against Portugal, and the rest will take care of itself. A group of death commonly sees the first and third favourites passing the group, not the first and second. This is of no great importance to Italy – since the last 16 will pit the second-placed from the group of death (either Brazil or the Ivory Coast) against the winner of Group H, almost certainly Spain, and Italy will face the team to prevail in the latter match, then the quarter-finals will inevitably give us a major adversary – Spain or Brazil, with a very slim chance for the Africans. On the other hand, the unpredictability of Groups A and B will have major consequences for their rivals in C and D – namely, one between Germany and England will have an open highway to the semi-finals if they qualify first in their group.
It looks like there is no getting round Brazil for the Italians. Either in the quarter-finals or in the final itself, they look like the most threatening obstacle. Argentina and France are unlikely to ever be crossed unless some of their players really kick up their gear – Lionel Messi, to name the most prominent. The same can be said of England and the Netherlands, but for opposite reasons – they seem too good to come second in their groups, and if they do not, then they would have to reach the final to reach a point which could potentially cross paths with the Azzurri. So the most direct dangers are Spain and Germany as well as Brazil – perhaps the three strongest teams in the tournament. If anyone ever complained that Italy had an easy road in 2006, then rest assured – it is not going to happen again.
With the final draws magnetising everyone’s attention, there have been very few other news to discuss from the Azzurri front – with one exception. The potential return of Francesco Totti to the national team has raised the usual debate and the usual dust, and with Lippi having reasserted recently that he does not intend to bring Antonio Cassano (“a team is made with players who play for each other, not with someone who feels like he is a star”) alongside the terrifying sterility of the Azzurri attack, the subject is more pertinent than ever. The storm was raised by the declarations of the Roman captain – “in April, I shall discuss with Lippi whether to come back to the national team or not.” There is indeed much to discuss, but it looks like the jazz is postponed. We shall follow Francesco’s advice, then. We shall speak of it in April.