The great march towards the World Cup has started, and for some reason this puts everyone in a bad mood. The supporters are dissatisfied, the federation is submerged under a welter of polemics, and Coach Marcello Lippi is more uptight than anyone else. Word has it that he is determined to leave the national team after the World Cup. In part this is time following its natural course – the man will have had his shot (and taken his bullets) with the Azzurri, he will enjoy great offers from Juventus and a wealth of other clubs, and he will choose to leave. Good night and good luck. But to another extent, and according to rumours, Lippi is unhappy with the Italian football federation (FIGC) and the way they have failed to cooperate with him.
The present run of friendlies offers a revealing case study on the subject. Apparently, Lippi had requested three games from here to the summer, one against Holland, one against a powerful African team and one against Argentina. It would have been a journey through three different football cultures, and a taste of the stylistic variety which the Azzurri can expect to confront in South Africa. The FIGC only succeeded in assuring Lippi the first of these three wishes. The match against the Africans is still in the air and was extemporarily replaced with the one against Sweden (who is, furthermore, playing without Zlatan Ibrahimović). As for the Argentines, they were ‘nicked’ by the Germans, notoriously more efficient than the Italians when it comes to organisation. Lippi, who must have some German blood in him, has little patience with the continuous back-and-forth arguments as well as the persistent vagueness of the FIGC, and he would rather set off for greener pastures. One can hardly blame him.
The other reason why the fisherman from Viareggio is a couple of smiles short of his usual Winnie-the-Pooh affability is that the Antonio Cassano feuilleton is nowhere near an end. In fact, new ‘revelations’ have made the matter hotter than ever. A satirical programme called Striscia la Notizia was contacted by a source (who chose to remain anonymous) and informed about the real reason why Cassano is not getting called up. Supposedly, the footballer once got in a brawl with Lippi’s son Davide during a night out at a club. Davide was slapped, and the Azzurri got the bruise – farewell to Fantantonio. We usually refrain from commenting this kind of gossip, and Striscia is a programme for propagandistic trash at the best of times, but the story has a terribly beguiling quality – it rings true. It fits with the words of Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone, who spoke of ‘an ugly story’ between Lippi and Cassano which motivated the latter’s exclusion. It explains the obstinacy of the Coach as well as the irritated wall of silence that he constantly raises before the subject. And it is certainly more plausible than the ‘technical and psychological’ pretexts that Lippi has thrown at us for the last year. He might as well declare that he does not like players who are ugly and that Cassano does not make it into the team because he looks like something he would not touch with his fishing rod – which would not be a good reason, but it would at least be credible.
At all events, the interested parties chose to respond with silence and therefore so must we, for now, at least. When queried on subjects extraneous to Cassano, Lippi went back to resembling Winnie the Pooh and showed us all his golden heart as he proffered blessings to Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon. He likes them very much, he tells us, both of them. He feels sorry for Santon because the boy is not playing very much, and of course he cannot come to the World Cup unless he gets more playing time. Comments of this kind will prove a tremendous drive for Santon to change teams in January, much to the resentment of Inter Coach José Mourinho and the consequent delight of his rival Lippi (who may have been speaking with nothing else in mind than to get on Mourinho’s nerves). As for Balotelli, one must be lenient with him, because he does very much on the pitch and his temper is a result of the times he grew up in. There are no ‘technical and psychological’ reasons going against him.
Still, and now that the pressure of qualification has eased, Lippi has shown some inclination to call up a batch of younger players. Giampaolo Pazzini is in, which is great, since he is the only plausible alternative to Alberto Gilardino – almost nobody else plays in the role of prima punta, and those who do are old enough to have fought in a couple of wars (Luca Toni, Filippo Inzaghi). We also have Antonio Candreva, from Livorno, who adds some depth in terms of midfielders capable of playing on the wing. The effort is positive, though it is a little worrying to see how little selection the Azzurri have in that department. They are still dependent on the ashes of Mauro Camoranesi, and the alternative is someone as unremarkable as Simone Pepe. Now Candreva, who is not bad, but he is not exactly pyrotechnic either, and he has no experience of international football. Finally, we get the Cagliari midfielder Davide Biondini. We like him more than Candreva, but he is unlikely to get much playing time, much less make it to the World Cup. If Lippi has to pick up players from Cagliari, one wonders why he does not look at their defenders – they are young, strong and mostly Italian, starting from Davide Astori. They would make for some very worthy additions to the bench.
It remains to be seen how Italy will play against Holland. Last time it ended 3-0 for the orange folk, but then, those were the times of Roberto Donadoni. Under Lippi, the friendly confrontation in 2005 ended 3-1 for the Italians. A repeat of that result seems unlikely – the Oranje are very powerful today, and one of the three or four favourite teams for the World Cup. The Azzurri are in far weaker shape, and they have always lost against major opposition under the current management. Furthermore, it appears that Lippi will field the 4-3-3, a formation which has never really worked for the Azzurri. It is impossible to say how the game will go. A positive result would go a long way towards cementing the morale and the confidence of this team. A result in the kin of Donadoni will have negative repercussions, and it seems a more likely one. Not that this will change Lippi’s policies, of course. At least not as long as Davide bears that ugly bruise on the cheek.