To say that Marcello Lippi picked up an Azzurri team which subsisted in a state of difficulty would be an understatement. The debacles of the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 had left severe dents on the confidence of the players, coupled with a shameful sense that the men were not doing justice to the nation’s brilliant heritage and reputation. It was left to the technician from Viareggio, armed with a very impressive background with Juventus (and a somewhat less overwhelming CV with Inter), to repair the engine’s broken heart.
Lippi’s traditional method always saw him working on the psychological aspect of the team’s development first and then gradually adding the rest. His work during the World Cup qualifiers is, in this regard, exemplary. During the first year of his management, the range and breadth of Lippi’s call-ups was truly remarkable, as was the open attitude that he displayed to new or doubtful players. A wealth of youngsters were given a taste of the blue shirt, alongside several players from mid-to-low-table teams who had never enjoyed the international spotlight. It signified an intent to test new tactical grounds of course. It was also, however, a way of sending a message to players in Italy – the doors to the national team are open to everyone and guaranteed for none. This had a very specific effect – when, in mid-2005, Lippi held a press conference to declare that ‘the time for experiments is over’ and he boldly narrowed down the range of his call-ups, those players who were left within the group felt that they had earned it. More than that, they had earned it together. They were a team.
The 12 months of open call-ups allowed for the inclusion of new faces amid the Azzurri. Some youngsters came to the fore, the most prominent being Daniele De Rossi and Alberto Gilardino, while two elements from mid-table team Palermo earned a place as starters – forward Luca Toni, then at his absolute best, and left-back Fabio Grosso, whose selection would later prove prophetic. The rest of the team was built around a solid group of players in their prime. Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta were untouchable in defence, much like Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Mauro German Camoranesi and Simone Perrotta in the midfield, as they provided both fuel and class. Some polemics were raised over the exclusion of right-back Christian Panucci, who was enjoying a superb season at Roma, but the core of the squad left little to discuss. The offence, on the other hand, left room for much speculation.
Lippi was building his team around a 4-3-1-2 formation capable of adapting into a 4-4-2 when a result had to be defended in the second half. Two very solid results in friendly matches against Holland (3-1) and Germany (4-1) during the second year of Lippi’s reign had demonstrated the effectiveness of the system, but the specific names of the forwards to be employed remained doubtful. Lippi’s original intention appeared to envision the deployment of Francesco Totti as a trequartista behind his Roma colleague Antonio Cassano and Parma striker Gilardino, a terrific combination of talent, youth and finishing power. Sadly, Cassano’s downward spiral saw his career stall on the benches of Roma and Real Madrid, meaning that the man had to be dropped, while Totti fell victim to a devastating injury which made him unavailable until the very first days of the tournament. This made space for other names – Toni of course, but also Alessandro Del Piero, whose star was somewhat dulling at that stage, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Christian Vieri, Cristiano Lucarelli and Filippo Inzaghi. Eventually Iaquinta won the duel over Lucarelli and Vieri was ruled out by a knee injury, practically forcing Lippi into the reluctant decision to take Inzaghi to the World Cup.
With the final 23 almost completely whittled down and World Cup qualification comfortably secured, it appeared nothing was left but to reserve the plane for Germany, that is until all hell broke loose. A number of illegal proceedings involving virtually all aspects of Serie A, from refereeing to the mercato, were brought to the attention of the authorities and the public in what is now referred to as the Calciopoli scandal. Almost all of the major teams in the league were implicated, while voices on the international stage clamoured for Italian players from those teams involved to be banned from World Cup participation. Lippi, backed by several of his top players, was suddenly forced to defend his legitimacy, and extensive press conferences were held. Ultimately, Italy were allowed to play – but they would play, it seemed, in a rain of fire.
Amid fire then, the tournament kicked off. Italy’s group pitted the Azzurri against solid middleweights Ghana and the USA in addition to an aging but technically impressive Czech Republic. A tough group, arguably the toughest after Argentina and Holland’s Group of Death, but Italy’s start was correspondingly strong. They completely outplayed Ghana during the first half of their opening group game – Gilardino and Toni both came within inches of scoring until a wonderful shot from distance by Pirlo gave the Italians the lead. The second half saw the Azzurri switch formation and play a more passive game, albeit doubling their lead when Iaquinta took advantage of a defensive howler from Samuel Kuffour. The game was closed, and the first half had been so convincing that even abroad the press were quite resonant (except for the Spanish, who have never held the Italian national team in high regard). Interestingly, one of the few opaque performers in that first game was Grosso, clearly unnerved by the big stage. Some commentators were quick to suggest he should have been benched for the next match, and in light of what the man did later it is a measure of Lippi’s wisdom that he stuck with his initial choice.
Despite the strong opening – or, perhaps, precisely as a consequence of the over-inflated spirits resulting there from – Italy failed to shine in their second game against the USA. Gilardino gave the Azzurri the lead with a diving header, but team-play was low in key and their game was sterile. De Rossi had the blackest moment of his career when he was sent off for elbowing Brian McBride in the face – a gesture that earned him a five-game suspension, effectively removing him from the competition until the final. (His place was taken by Gattuso, who enjoyed a glorious tournament from thereon out). The game against the USA closed on 1-1 after 90 minutes of complete chaos – an own goal from Christian Zaccardo and two other red cards (for the Americans) meant all normal tactical scenarios became inapplicable. The draw left the game against the Czech Republic as the decider. Fortunately though, the Czechs had lost a number of men to injury (a frailty which was probably down to their advanced collective age), and they were despatched quickly and easily with goals from Marco Materazzi and Inzaghi.
Though Italy had seldom looked at risk against the Czechs, concerns were being raised over their offensive potential. The Azzurri had created little when in possession, and the blame for this was being laid to a great extent on Totti. The Roma captain, looked upon as the team’s creative dynamo and the bridge between the midfield and offence, was still recovering from injury and his form on the pitch was dreadful. This led Lippi to bench him for the last-sixteen game against Australia. The decision proved an unhappy one for Lippi as the Azzurri, far from improving on their performance, put in their worst game of the tournament. Materazzi failed miserably to help matters by earning himself a red card to leave the men in blue outnumbered. With 15 minutes remaining and a team all but folded on itself, Lippi sent Totti into the fray for Del Piero – a “gesture of despair,” as journalist Gianni Mura would later define it, but a correct gesture nonetheless. Totti did not revolutionise the game but he did open up play offensively, and it was his long ball into the left channel that launched Grosso’s first act of heroism. The Palermo left-back skipped a man, entered the box and earned a somewhat controversial penalty with only seconds remaining. Totti converted a ball loaded with ninety-four minutes of tension, and the game reached its exhaustive end.
As the halfway sign-post in the path of the World Cup, the game against Australia was crucial because of the role it played in defining the tactical identity of the Italian team. Totti had to start, but his slow running pace had to be compensated for with a midfield dense in players. The formation was thus switched from the 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-1-1. The defence had established itself by now as a wall of steel, with Cannavaro’s performances proving utterly sensational and his leadership skills stronger than ever before, stimulated firstly by the Calciopoli criticisms, then by the near-suicide of his friend and colleague Gianluca Pessotto, to whom was dedicated the subsequent victory against Ukraine. Nesta had been lost to injury, to his own frustration and that of the entire Italian peninsula, and while Materazzi was always something of a shady and unpredictable figure, the rest of Cannavaro’s comrades – Buffon, Zambrotta, Grosso – were simply outstanding. Milan duo, Pirlo and Gattuso again proved their class in midfield also.
With their team spirit increasingly more pristine and their confidence mounting, Italy went on to steamroll Ukraine 3-0 in the quarter-finals, thanks primarily to a superb performance by Zambrotta and Toni’s only two goals of the tournament. The road to the semi-final was open – and, at the dire gates, the lions of Germany were waiting. Resuming that epic match in just a few lines can never do it justice. The game was highly drawn-out and incredibly tense. It stood and still stands as a monument to how Europeans play football – concrete, often subtle, crudely passionate, with multiple layers of meaning and reading and a philosophy which always puts the team before the individual. During extra-time, a post and a crossbar were hit (and the equivalent heart-beats were skipped in Italy) by Gilardino first and Zambrotta later. The local crowd was a single voice shouting Deutschland but the reins of the game were being held by the Azzurri, and Lippi could see this. He started urging the team forward and with the game ebbing towards a penalty shoot-out, the Italian line-up on the field contained Totti, Del Piero, Gilardino and Iaquinta. Then, in the final thirty seconds of game, catharsis is unleashed. Pirlo sketches a silken assist into the box for the first-touch shot of Grosso. The ball draws an arch around German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and hits the back of the net. The Italian left-back can not believe it and celebrates in true-Tardelli fashion. The game is kicked-off again and the Germans search for the miracle – only to crash against the iron door of Cannavaro, who is indomitable. The skipper bursts forward before giving the ball to Totti who launches it forward to Gilardino. Approaching the German area, Gilardino slides a clever through-ball to his left for an on-rushing Del Piero, and the rest as they say is history – a perfect curve around Lehmann, and 2-0 for the Azzurri. Hats off gentlemen, this is team-play at its very best.
Then came the final against France – a team which had been Italy’s nemesis for almost 10 years. Two apparently unsolvable questions hung in the air. Firstly – how do you score a goal against Italy? And secondly – how do you stop Zidane? Both found their answer over the course of the final. France took the lead by means of a penalty converted by the retiring French maestro. Advantage Les Bleus. However, it would have required more than that to drain the iron spirit from the Italians. The first half was dominated by the Azzurri and a towering header from Materazzi allowed them to equalise while only the width of a crossbar prevented Toni from heading them into the lead. Yet the team was suffering and the reason was simple – Totti was not working. Call it a collapse in form or a psychological block, but Totti endured his worst game of the tournament, leaving Lippi little choice but to haul him off. Yet, as in the game against Australia, this only made the team stagnate. Totti’s man-marker, Claude Makelele, suddenly found himself freed up to do whatever he liked in the midfield and from there until the end of the game, Italy played a quiet game of resistance. Despite the French dominance however, Italy did manage to find the net in the form of a header from Toni, only for the lineman’s flag to rule it out for a non-existent offside. Towards the end, Zidane strove to find a parting gift for the travelling French supporters but Buffon completed his own little piece of magic when the Frenchman’s unbelievable header was cleared from the net by the goalkeeper’s raptorial fingers. A few minutes later, Materazzi answered the second great question of the night as Zidane offered his second unbelievable header, this time to the chest of the controversial Italian centre-half. A red card in his final game for the French captain, a penalty shoot-out to decide the destination of the Cup and a perfect execution by the Azzurri. The final penalty without saying was despatched calmly by Grosso. Campioni del mondo.
Despite the triumph, and as he had promised following the Calciopoli deflagration, Lippi retired as Coach of the national team after the tournament and left the group to his successor, Roberto Donadoni. Known for his tenacious style of play, his exceptionally cohesive psychological management and his talent for dealing with the media and institutions as well as he did with the players, Lippi is one of only three Coaches to have won the World Cup with the Italian national team. His return to the helm of the Azzurri has been welcomed as a blessing. As the situation evolves, it is now being seen with slightly more sceptical eyes. Whatever the perspective, it is certainly makes for a fascinating return and an interesting build-up to next year’s World Cup where Italy under Lippi will attempt to retain their crown.