Imagine that the game had ended at the 75th minute, when Italy were down to Cyprus by two goals, or even at the 90th, on the draw. The current mood would be significantly different. The victory was ugly and somewhat undeserved, as most of Marcello Lippi’s victories tend to be. The reaction of the press can be summed up more or less as follows – Italy suffered the aggressive attitude of Cyprus for most of the game, but eventually they managed to pick themselves up by means of a strong show of character, cynicism and team-spirit. Give or take a couple of words, it is the same thing that was said after the game against Ireland.
This reflects a general discursive trend that seems to be growing behind this team, one which has been iterated – among others – by Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon and Gennaro Gattuso. The idea is that Italy are not a team that play well and show spectacular football, but a group of winners based on grit, cohesion and fighting spirit. A recent article on FIFA.com made the interesting point that Italy have looked extremely unconvincing and are, for this reason, especially ominous – historically, this team that wins only when in times of crisis. And exponents of the Azzurri in their current shape point to the fact that Italy won the 2006 World Cup by playing a globally bad game, but showing real heart.
It would be great if one of these people could expose the reasoning behind the latter claim. Of the seven matches played in 2006, Italy showed an excellent game against Ghana, the Ukraine and Germany, and they put in solid performances against the Czech Republic and France. Only in their matches against the USA and Guus Hiddink’s Australia could the Azzurri have been termed poor. Also compare the build-up to Germany 2006 in the friendly games won against the Netherlands (3-1) and Germany (4-1), and the two humiliating defeats against Brazil under the current management (2-0 and 3-0).
We wish to take our distance from this argument at once, among other things because it is going to repeat itself over and over on the way to the tournament. The paradigm is simply not sustainable. Victorious Italian teams of the past have shown heart, yes, but they have also shown tactical and technical solidity. They were established and consistent in a given formation, not lost in a plethora of experiments as they are now (here is a list of the configurations used in the last five games – 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2, 4-2-3-1 and now 4-3-2-1). They had tremendous defensive depth, from Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi to Alessandro Nesta, Mark Iuliano and Fabio Cannavaro, a quality which is markedly deficient right now. They selected and started players who were the best of the best, rather than leaving the most prominent fantasisti at home amid a storm of polemics. They were composed of champions in their prime, rather than having an average age that could get the players into the Italian parliament.
As for the historical argument, and the notion that Italy are most dangerous when they play ugliest, it is factually false. Since the 1980s, Italy have shown their ugliest football in 1986, 1996, 2002 and 2004, and their best football in 1982, 1990 and 2000, with the rest of the tournaments (including the 1994 and 2006 finals) falling somewhere inbetween. Compare the results and draw your own conclusions. The current team struggles against the likes of Ireland, is incinerated by the likes of Brazil and displays its lack of depth on the bench against Cyprus. It is a poor team, no matter how much good will it may put on the pitch.
What we are seeing today, then, is a very weak team in search of alibis to veil its shortcomings. The argument on character is no more than that, an alibi. It is an elaborate shot at sophistry, one that makes selective use of the past rather than anchoring its arguments in the present. The team is certain to change and hopeful to improve over the next eight months, so our verdict is not conclusive. But do not be fooled. However much you hear the paradigm on character repeated from now to South Africa, if the team were to go into the World Cup in its current state then it would crash out by the quarter-finals, and no amount of ‘pride’ or ‘character’ would keep them from that fate.
We do not buy the con, and it is comforting to see that a great deal of the public does not buy it either. Italy were submerged by the protestations of the local crowd as they screeched at the poor performance and chanted for the inclusion of Antonio Cassano. Lippi’s rage after the match made for a more amusing show than the match itself. He may not have asked the journalists to ‘go suck on it,’ as Diego Maradona did after the Argentinean qualification, but he certainly lost some of his legendary composure. Apparently, it is a scandal that the national team should be met with contestation. This may be so, but Lippi’s decisions and some of his results are a scandal as well, so the man simply reaps what he sows. Eye for an eye, as the Old Testament puts it.
In closure, we may note that a great deal is being said around a possible return of Francesco Totti in the Azzurri shirt. Mostly this is fluff – the media have taken some neutral comments by Lippi and his collaborators and interpreted them as an ‘opening’ to the player. Still, we may expect a lot to be said around this subject too, from here to South Africa. It is unlikely to come to much, and in fact we hope it comes to nothing. The man’s class is indisputable, but his form is unreliable and his inclusion questionable from a moral point of view. Cassano represents a far better option. From here to June, expect the names of these two players to be repeated a lot, alongside the argument on character, which will become tiring earlier even than anyone can disprove it.