Well, if nothing else, Italy has found its dexterous striker at last. With two goals to his name last Saturday, Kakha Kaladze is the player who has scored the most for Italy in the last four games. If he had actually been wearing the Azzurri shirt, it would have given us cause to celebrate.
“We deserved our good fortune,” Marcello Lippi declared after the match. The statement is impressive – if only for the man’s ability to keep a straight face – and it smacks of déjà vu. Following the friendly against Switzerland, this is the second game in a row that the Azzurri supposedly ‘deserve’ to win despite their strikers failing to notch a goal and their best man on the pitch being named the goalie ( Gazzetta and Repubblica both awarded their highest ranking to Gianluigi Buffon). Lippi’s argument goes that Italy created plenty of opportunities in the box, so it was only natural that eventually some goals would follow, however chaotic they may be. A debatable point of view – but the fact remains that the Italian strikers did not score. They were playing against a team that represents to the world of football what Harry Potter fan-fiction represents to William Shakespeare (read: they had to field a s16-year-old to make ends meet), yet they did not score.
This, and the fact that for all of Lippi’s sophistry this was a very poor game, explains why the Azzurri currently find themselves in one of the most furious storms of the media in a long time. Not since the conflagration of Calciopoli had this team been subject to such sour criticism. It has become so pervasive that Lippi himself picked up on it, bemoaning the fact that: “everybody is speaking about Cassano and Mourinho, but nobody is speaking about us, about how we’re playing.” It makes one wonder if he has asked himself why that is. But we shall try and make everyone content and discuss both sides of the issue.
Firstly, let us fulfil Lippi’s request. How are we playing? To the extent that this is meant to be a football team and not an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the answer can be resumed in one word – terribly. For the best part of the first half of the game, the midfield was outplayed by the Georgians. While the Eastern Europeans seldom came close to producing an authentic threat (their teenagers must not have been on their best day), they had ball possession and they seemed to know what they were doing. Having finally figured out that the 4-4-2 is a better option than the 4-3-3 for the Azzurri, Lippi is now faced with the daunting task of finding the wingers for it in a nation that is almost void of players for that role. Mauro Camoranesi remains an almost guaranteed starter for this reason (woe to us if he gets injured), while Marco Marchionni represents the new name in course of experimentation. He failed to convince, fully justifying Juventus’ decision to sell him this summer, but he has time to recuperate. Let us hope that Fiorentina give him the playing time he needs. As for the defence, they looked old or shaky, or both. Domenico Criscito needs far more experience, and someone needs to tell him not to take example from Kaladze (the goal would have been spectacular, granted, but it was on the wrong side of the pitch). Fabio Cannavaro is the shadow of the player he once was, lifting far more dust off the pitch than he does upon it. In fact, if Lippi really wants us to stop talking about José Mourinho, then perhaps he should take Cannavaro to one side and command him to put a towel into his mouth.
This leads us nicely to our second point of discussion – what is going on outside of the pitch. Cannavaro lovingly suggested to Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli that they should leave Inter if they wish to make it into the national team. Mourinho may have all the placid nature of a rattlesnake dunked in Red Bull, but his anger is entirely legitimate. Making similar statements at such a delicate conjuncture of the championship is either incredibly naïve or far too suspect not to raise some eyebrows – and the idea that the position of Azzurri captain may be used to do the interest of one’s club team is revolting. Furthermore, and regardless of the political implications, the argument makes no logical sense. If Santon and Balotelli are not good enough to cut it at a club like Inter, then how on earth are they supposed to be good enough for the national team? How is leaving Inter – and the Champions League – going to help them gain international experience? How would the cut in their salaries come to the players’ advantage – and how can Cannavaro have the guts to advocate something similar after he himself bolted from Inter like a rabbit for his own personal interest? Mourinho’s wrath is not just comprehensible, it is sacrosanct. And his objection – that by Cannavaro’s logic, Sebastian Giovinco and Nicola Legrottaglie should be leaving Juventus – is faultless. But Lippi told Santon ‘the future is yours’ and other fluff in a nice one-on-one discussion, so apparently all is well.
Chapter two – Antonio Cassano. Lippi is frustrated and he demanded ‘respect for his decisions’ on the subject. But if there is anyone who is being denied the respect that he deserves, that is precisely Cassano. Besides, it is practically impossible not to speak of the talent from Bari Vecchia right now. The season is only two games in and the man has exploded on to the fields with such pyrotechnics that the media themselves struggle to keep up with them. Let us resume his blitzes quickly. First came a goal against Lecce in his opening Coppa Italia game – a run into the box and a first-touch shot into the corner with his back-heel – a masterpiece worthy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Then, in the same game, an impeccable chest-control on the run and a superb chipped ball to kill the keeper. More recently, in the game against Udinese, he dribbled two defenders outside of the box and pierced the goal with a perfect angled low-ball. Then the last feat, only a couple of days ago – a friendly against beginners which Sampdoria won by 12-0, but again the jewel belonged to Cassano as he scored from the midfield. A distant shot from the circle, the way that Maradona used to score. And four assists in three official games, just to drive the point home.
Lippi wonders why we talk about him. For our own part, we wonder what Lippi is thinking. The team he fielded is the holding world champion, but they struggled against Georgia in an atmosphere of surreal comedy, with all the chances coming from the team’s own respective defenders. The media divide themselves in two sides, those who go hysterical and scream for Lippi to be exonerated, and those who try to keep an air of calm before managerial choices which are practically indefensible and largely incomprehensible. We cannot make our minds up as to which side to choose. Perhaps the match against Bulgaria – a slightly more serious team than their predecessors – will give us a clearer idea. In the meantime, and regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the Azzurri play such an ugly football that watching them is becoming increasingly distant from a matter of pleasure.
– Italy Camp Focus – And it came to pass… – June 23, 2009 – A reflection of the Azzurri at the Confederations Cup, plus links to Football Italiano’s full coverage of the competition
FIFA World Cup 2010 Qualifying – UEFA Group 8
September 6, 2008 – Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium, Larnaca
Cyprus 1-2 Italy – Aloneftis 28; Di Natale 8, 90
September 10, 2008 – Stadio Friuli, Udine
Italy 2-0 Georgia – De Rossi 17, 89
October 11, 2008 – Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia
Bulgaria 0-0 Italy
October 15, 2008 – Via del Mare, Lecce
Italy 2-1 Montenegro – Aquilani 8,29; Vučinić 19
March 28, 2009 – Pod Goricom, Podgorica
Montenegro 0-2 Italy – Pirlo 11, Pazzini 73
April 1, 2009 – Stadio San Nicola, Bari
Italy 1-1 Republic of Ireland – Iaquinta 10; Keane 87
September 5, 2009 – Boris Paichadze Stadium, Tbilisi
Georgia 0-2 Italy – Kaladze OG 57, OG 67
September 9, 2009 – Stadio Olimpico, Turin
Italy vs. Bulgaria
October 10, 2009 – Croke Park, Dublin
Republic of Ireland vs. Italy
October 14, 2009 – venue tbc
Italy vs. Cyprus
World Cup South Africa 2010 Final draw – December 4, 2009