Azzurri more than the sum of their parts
The shadow of scandal or unhappiness which marked the build-up to Euro 2012 has been banished by the Italians whose flair has graced the tournament, writes KEITH DUGGAN
Streets Flooded. Please Advise.
– Robert Benchley, telegram sent upon arrival in Venice.
THOSE of us who were in Ellis Park on that crisp 2010 June afternoon won’t quickly forget the performance of Marcello Lippi afterwards. Italy, the reigning world champions, had just been eliminated from the World Cup after losing 3-2 to Slovakia.
The Italian coach didn’t even pause to light his customary cigarette before sweeping into a crowded room filled with mournful Italian men and apologising with great panache for what was a catastrophic day for the Azzurri.
He said it was entirely his fault.
“If a team shows up for an important game like this with terror in their head, their hearts and their legs and if a team is simply unable to express its abilities it means the coach didn’t train as he could have done.”
You have to love the Italians: they even manage to make humiliation an exercise in style.
As Italy stunned the German football team and nation on Thursday night (was it just coincidence that Angela Merkel relented at the EU summit hours later?), their humiliating exit in Johannesburg two years ago seemed all the more inexplicable.
Not only had the Italians been defeated by Slovakia, they had drawn with a New Zealand team whose squad contained part-time players. Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo, Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini all featured in those games and the Italian back line included Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta. Andrea Pirlo, the 33-year-old who is now being hailed as the Prospero of European football, came in as substitute against Slovakia, his contribution to the tournament curtailed by injury.
His introduction drew the loudest cheer of the day from the crowd but his first act was to lose control of the football on the edge of the Italian box. It wasn’t until the last 10 minutes of the match that the Italians seemed to awake from a trance and absorb the fact they were trailing by three goals and quickly, they concocted two goals and engaged in a desperate push for a third. But time ran out.
With the Italians, it must be all or nothing. The shadow of scandal and unhappiness which marked the build-up to Euro 2012 has all but been forgotten now. The Irish squad were based not too far from the Italians when word of a match-fixing scandal coincided with an earthquake. The hourly bulletins and excited, scandalised Italian commentary seemed to suggest the Azzurri would arrive in Poland demoralised and vulnerable.
In retrospect, everyone should have known better. The time to be most wary of the Italians is when they arrive in quarrelsome and troubled mood.
The build-up to their slow ascent to World Cup triumph in 2006 was also filled with rumour and chaos. The integrity of the Italian domestic leagues was shattered by the investigation into the appointment of officials, match fixing and in-house betting. By the time the Italian national team arrived in Germany, the investigation was still ongoing but it was clear that disgrace was going to be the only outcome. The general expectation was that Italy would be little more than a hollow shell of a team and slink away quietly.
Instead, in a World Cup that was fast and celebratory from the beginning, they established a slow-burning, defensively solid rhythm under Lippi and moved unspectacularly through the group stages, gaining momentum as they progressed.