Meet The Teams: Italy
The Italian Men’s National Football Team is informally known as Gli Azzurri, which means “the blues.” They wear a kit dominated by a bright blue color; their principal kit is a solid blue with an emblem derived from the Italian flag; their alternative kit is principally white with blue pin-striping and the flag emblem. Italy’s emblem bears four stars, one for each of its previous World Cup victories, which came in 1934, 1938, 1982, and most recently in 2006. FIFA presently ranks Italy as the ninth-strongest side in international play.
And the theme for Italy this year is some of its most storied players passing the torch on to the next generation.
Gli Azzurri’s showing in the 2010 World Cup was disappointing, as they battled to draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, and losing to Slovakia. Italy failed to make it out of the round-robin first stage entirely, the first time Italy had ever been unable to get a victory in the World Cup. A few of my male relatives in Italy suffered something of a persistent malaise after that wound to the national pride, with their wives and girlfriends quickly thereafter assuming an “Oh, get over it already,” sort of attitude.
Following the disappointing results from South Africa, Italy took on a new coach, Cesare Prandelli. Prandelli had won Serie A coach of the year honors for his work as Fiorentina’s coach (Fiorentina are a perennial also-ran in Italian football, but punched way above their weight class under Prandelli’s guidance, which included getting the then-rookie Mario Balotelli on the squad, about which more see below). Prandelli took Italy to the final game of Euro 2012, besting titans like England and Germany.
Despite an ultimate loss to Spain in the championship game (after having tied Spain in the first match of the tournament), Prandelli was widely seen as having personally revived the swagger and ability of the once-again proud Italian Men’s National Football Team. He affirmed Italy’s status as a contender during the 2013 FIFA Confederation Cup, in which Italy took third place overall, behind powerhouses Brazil and Spain.
His overall record as coach of gli Azzurri since taking over in 2010 is 18 wins, 12 draws, and 7 losses, with an aggregate score of 53 to 35. Only one of the games went to penalty kicks, Italy’s quarterfinal victory over England in Euro 2012. Italy qualified for the 2014 Cup with relative ease (as if anything is easy at this level!) by winning their group in the UEFA playoffs.
Players To Watch
Making what will surely be his last World Cup appearance is the team captain, keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon plays professionally for Juventus, one of the oldest association football teams in Italy, playing home games in Turin. Buffon is 36 years old, the son of two Olympic athletes, was until just last month married to an ultra-hot Czech supermodel and Euro-Playboy centerfold, has been playing professionally for twenty years, and if I recall correctly is the highest-paid player in Italian football. Wearing number 1 as he has in all his previous appearances, Buffon is thought of as one of the smartest keepers in the game; you’ve seen him before in highlight reels making miraculous jumps even if the only soccer you’ve ever seen on TV are those highlight clips: he is regarded as one of the best keepers ever at the international level.
Intimately associated with Prandelli’s career is the young and exceptionally talented Mario Balotelli. Balotelli may be thought of as sort of a hybrid Brett Favre and Dennis Rodman: he is fast, aggressive, unafraid to take risks, and has good instincts: he may be one of the very best young players in the sport now. And, like Favre and Rodman, he is a magnet for controversy for both on-field and off-field antics. When he played for Manchester City, he had a habit of wearing t-shirts below his jersey, initially emblazoned with the message “Why Always Me?” in frustration over drawing many yellow and red cards, and later with even more braggadocio. He’s been known to sport a Mohawk hairstyle, an indication that after moving back home and raising a daughter, he’s also not done raising a fuss both on and off the pitch. Balotelli will wear number 9 in this year’s tournament, and if I were coaching against him, I’d have at least three people keeping an eye on him every time the ball was on my side of the pitch.
His counterpart as principal striker will be Antonio Cassano, whose principal claim to off-pitch fame is his abilities to attract and seduce women. Cassano bragged in an autobiography that he’s had over six hundred women as sex partners, frequently the nights before big matches in defiance of conventional wisdom. Cassano regularly plays for Parma, and consequently his professional career leaves a sense of tremendous potential tied down by a team that rarely seems to put things together enough to make a strong bid at a championship – baseball fans might think of Mike Sweeney, and American football fans might think of Dan Marino. and throw in the “seduction superstar” reputation of, say, a Derek Jeter or a Wilt Chamberlain to capture the spirit of Cassano’s libidinal conquests. Cassano the Casanova will wear number 10 in the tournament, and at the ripe old age of 31, will be the oldest striker for gli Azzurri.
The biggest question mark, of course, is Andrea Pirlo, who at 35 has suffered a loss in speed compensated for by a mass of experience supplementing already-good instincts and a quick tactical mind. (Not to mention the striking resemblance to Eric Clapton.) In his last stint for gli Azzuri, his teammates nicknamed him l’architetto, for his ability to set up big plays with careful positioning and fast, long passes; his Serie A colleagues on Juventus have also lately taken to calling him “Mozart” because they say what he composes is magnificent art. It’s entirely possible that Pirlo will not score a goal at all in what will likely be his final tourney, but he will nevertheless get a big share of either the credit or the blame for Italy’s performance. Pirlo will wear number 21 and I expect he will be put in the back of the diamond formation to direct traffic and set up shots on goal.
Italy will compete in Group D during the round-robin first phase of the World Cup and will have two close matches on its preliminary schedule. Group D is one of the three groups this tournament (B, D, G) in which no matter what happens, at least one very good team is going to be sent home before the knockout round. In Group D, gli Azzurri’s first game will be on June 14 against England (ranked 10th), then after a long rest will go against Costa Rica (ranked 28th) on June 20, and then will get only a short rest but a gratefully short trip before taking on Uruguay (ranked 7th) on June 24. The Italy-England and Italy-Uruguay matches will be must-watch games from the round-robin stage.
Despite great enthusiasm for Uruguay by stats wizard Nate Silver, it seems to me that Italy has a realistic shot of winning its group despite the difficulty of its challengers. That would lead, on paper, to a first-round match in the elimination stage against (likely) Côte d’Ivoire, or a second-place showing leading (likely) to Columbia. But gli Azzurri can go toe to toe with any team in the tournament. A fifth star on that crest after a couple of weeks would be awesome and I’ll cheer loudly as the odds for it increase, but as a realistic matter Italy is a quarterfinals-caliber team in a group with two other quarterfinals-caliber teams. Optimistically, I’ll look for Italy to get to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by (pick one) Spain, Netherlands, or Brazil.
Watch for the passes from setup man Pirlo to Balotelli out on the pitch. That’s going to be the very essence of Italy’s recent glory days and struggles being passed along to the brightest of the players in this historic squad. They’ll also be fast passes. I’ll be rooting for Italy unless they come up against USA in the elimination stage, although the chances of that happening are, well, quite small, so I won’t have to worry about that happening unless I do. Avanti, Forza Azzurri!
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.