Marcello Lippi’s national side may be struggling to convince their doubters of their World Cup winning capabilities on their path to defending the trophy in South Africa, but the young Italian cubs of tomorrow are proving there is life beyond the current crop of Cannavaro, Buffon, Pirlo and co.
Italy’s Under-17 side are gearing up for this summer’s UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals in Germany, a fine feat for an age group who had not qualified for the championships since 2005, when Italy came 3rd in a competition they hosted.
This time around, Pasquale Salerno’s young guns impressed throughout their two qualifying groups, with a 5-2 defeat to the impressive Dutch side the only real blip on their road to the finals. With five wins out of six over the two qualifying campaigns, Italy’s young guns are perhaps now showing the potential needed to take the ageing Azzurri forward in years to come.
Having emerged from the first round qualifying behind Holland in second place, Salerno’s side upped their game in the elite round, winning all three of their games in Austria – including a fine 2-1 away win at the highly-rated Austrian hosts, who followed Salerno’s men through the qualifying stage in second place. The win over Austria was particularly impressive – outplaying and outthinking a strong side who had not lost in 10 matches in 2008, and a side who still remain as strong outsiders for the championship title itself. Despite their obvious potential it remains to be seen how far this Italian side can go in the tournament. Spain’s teenagers are following briskly in the footsteps of the senior team with two consecutive Under 17 Championships, while Switzerland, France and Holland are all worthy, realistic contenders.
Salerno does have some potential at his disposal. Strikers Giacomo Berretta of Serie B AlbinoLeffe and Juventus’ Alberto Libertazzi sparkled throughout the qualification campaign, scoring six goals between them in six games, while Fiorentina’s Andrea Bagnai and Roma’s Simone Sini both look strong prospects in defence. Felice Natalino, a stylish midfielder on loan at Inter, and Giuseppe Giovinco – brother of Sebastian – both look good bets for the future too. Berretta in particular looks a real talent. With eight goals in six appearances for the Under 17’s, the AlbinoLeffe youngster has already been compared to a young Christian Vieri, and is attracting increasing interest from Inter and Genoa. The 17-year-old looks set to stay with the Serie B promotion hopefuls for now, but it remains to be seen how much longer that will be the case.
For all the team’s talent, Salerno’s side face an uphill struggle to qualify from their group. The Azzurrini find themselves arguably in the “group of death” of the competition, sandwiched between holders Spain, a talented French side, and a Swiss team who have a strong, experienced squad, and who won the inaugural competition back in 2002. Salerno knows what he faces but remains optimistic ahead of the tournament: “All the teams we are facing are good teams. We don’t qualify every year so it’s important we perform here but this group has a lot of potential. We have five or six players already playing in the reserves of Serie A teams, and this is important for us and our future.” said Salerno, 45 this year.
They may not win the competition or even emerge as qualifiers from their group, but the fact that Salerno’s boys qualified in the first place is a good sign for the future of Italian football. Lippi’s current squad may still have an array of talent to call upon, but the former Juventus Tactician will know that time and age is something the World Cup holders’ do not have in great abundance. With an average team age just shy of 30, the Azzurri will be looking for fresh talent coming through the ranks to re-energise a team that has been somewhat stagnant of late.
It may be too early to rest a nation’s hopes with a bunch of teenagers barely out of school, but the signs are encouraging that there may yet be a promising future for the Italian national team. The championships are likely go unnoticed and under-the-radar across the football world, but Marcelo Lippi and his bosses will no doubt be hoping that the same does not apply to Italy’s team of tomorrow.