In true Italian style, even dead rubber games like Italy vs. Cyprus are able to stir up all manner of arguments and controversy. The opportunity for debate started well before the 90 minutes in Parma – as assured qualification for next summer’s tournament in South Africa attracted the attention of former golden-boy Francesco Totti. He expressed a willingness to return to the Nazionale should Coach Marcello Lippi give him the call-up. The openness of the CT to the possibility did nothing but fuel the criticism many Italians have towards his selection process which still has Antonio Cassano watch the Italy games from the comfort of his house, despite sterling performances for Sampdoria.
From their camp in Coverciano the team will have been relatively sheltered from all the gossip and, as the Azzurri came into Wednesday night’s fixture having earned automatic qualification last weekend, Coach Lippi seized the opportunity to deploy a younger, experimental formation with 11 changes from the team that played on Saturday. This should be seen as a positive for a national side that is more and more branded as ageing. However, fielding a side that has had little to no bonding time can backfire, even against a group of islanders – and sure enough the visitors took a surprising two goal lead and for over three quarters of the game were close to pulling off possibly the greatest moment in Cypriot footballing history. It didn’t last for them though, as Alberto Gilardino saved the makeshift side with a memorable hat-trick and Italy can therefore pride itself of completing the ten game group without a defeat. Despite this, the Italian fans who made it to the Ennio Tardini, around 15,000 of them, booed the team off the pitch in protest against Lippi’s selections and calling out for Cassano.
This may seem an unwarranted reaction but it is evident where the frustration of the Italian fans is coming from. While the Azzurri may have completed the group without a defeat, the performances against lesser sides – Bulgaria, Georgia and ultimately Cyprus – have done little to show that the side is as high flying as it was. This becomes particularly apparent when considering the likes of Spain and England are scoring for fun and, outside Europe, Brazil are looking imposing, especially so now that the team finally boasts strong defenders and a reliable keeper alongside its usual flamboyant goal scorers. The title of World Champions is now looking heavier than ever and Lippi has eight months to get the Azzurri working like they did in Germany. Can he do it? This writer believes one thing, if he can’t, no-one can. Immediately after the game Lippi shifted his attention away from his to-do-list and ranted at the nation and those booing fans. The World Cup winning Coach didn’t hold back in expressing his frustration at the behaviour of the crowd. He told national television: “I am absolutely furious. If I am convinced of a player I’ll call him up. The real problem is the lack of respect towards these fantastic players, hopefully it’s the opinion of a minority because these players are World Champions and deserve some support.” The waters have since calmed and the Italian Coach has deemed his outburst excessive but necessary for the protection of the team.
With qualifying over, the whole of Italian football can seriously start preparing for South Africa. Ultimately la Nazionale has qualified for a World Cup and it is right that we appreciate the feat and focus more on the positives than on the negatives, which can do no good for a nation we all want to see do well next summer. The Azzurri were unbeaten throughout their qualifying campaign, racking up seven wins and three draws. They scored 18 goals and conceded a mere 7. Much of the concerns over the side have been triggered not by 2010 qualifiers but by a terrible showing in this summers Confederations Cup. Let’s face it though, the tournament itself is little more than an opportunity for South Africa to test drive its infrastructures before the big event next year. If we overlook that competition, we see that the Azzurri have not lost a competitive game in regular time since their opener in Euro 2008 against Holland and that they have not lost with Lippi at the helm for longer than this writer cares to remember. Furthermore the past 15 months have seen new fresh faces come into the squad. Giuseppe Rossi, David Santon, Domenico Criscito and Antonio Bocchetti are just a few of the youngsters who have stepped into a World Cup Winning squad and who are learning from the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Rino Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo – if anyone can teach these starlets to play in a big summer tournament it’s these men.
The opener of this article tells the truth – it’s the Italian style to stir up arguments and controversy, they are unable to enjoy the moment without a good dose of drama. But ultimately, the bottom line reads that Italy are going to the World Cup – so it is only fair that if condemnation of Lippi and is men is necessary, then it should be postponed.