September 17, 2011
September 12, 2011
What a difference a year makes - especially if you're talking about Italy's national soccer team.
Last summer, the Italians exited from the World Cup in the first round - matching its worst showing ever - and were deemed a national disgrace after having won the tournament just four years earlier. The federation then hired Cesare Prandelli as coach to replace the outgoing Marcello Lippi and captain Fabio Cannavaro announced his retirement.
Over the past 14 months, Prandelli has made a series of changes. Out with the old and in with the new, Prandelli redesigned the lineup to include players Lippi had excluded, such as strikers Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and the New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi. As a result, the Italians cruised through qualification for next year's European Championship and are now a favorites to win the title along with World Cup winners Spain and perennial powerhouse Germany.
The Italians have been almost perfect - earning 22 points out of the possible 24 and going a staggering 605 minutes without conceding a goal. Once again, Italy's defense is one of the best in the world - although the team could use more goals. Staying true to tradition, the team has kept Italy fans worried about the outcome of games until the final whistle.
With Italian club soccer seemingly on the ropes (the Serie A season started a week late because of a players' strike and talent has fled to England and Spain), the national team's demise was seen as a reflection of the overall poor state of the game throughout the country. Instead, Prandelli's Italy has given fans a reason to be optimistic. Even the French sports newspaper L'Equipe proclaimed recently that the Italians were back, saying, "A year after leaving South Africa with the dunce's cap, Italy have moved back up to the top of the class alongside Germany among the best in Europe."
It is no surprise that Italy is back. A four-time World Cup champion, Italy is second only to Brazil when it comes to titles. It has a tradition of producing quality players and, despite Serie A's problems, the Italian renaissance is proof that the Azzurri can again compete for some silverware.
"If we think about where we were a year ago, this is a remarkable achievement," Prandelli said two weeks ago, after Italy qualified for Euro '12 following a 1-0 victory over Slovenia in Florence. "We started from scratch and we have introduced a clear playing philosophy in a short span of time. We have done a lot - but much is still to be done. We'll work hard over the next year. We'll remain on the same path as far as the quality and the ideas are concerned."
Prandelli's new-look squad and 4-3-1-2 lineup does have some familiar faces on it. Veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielders Danielle De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo are still on the team. The defense is anchored by Giorgio Chiellini, one of the few remaining from the 2010 World Cup, while Cassano, a notable absence from Lippi's team last year, spearheads the attack. Cassano has scored four goals in eight games during Euro '12 qualifying.
This Italian team is relatively young. Balotelli, who plays for Manchester City, is just 21, while Cassano is the veteran at 29, even though he has not played regularly for Italy since the 2004 European Championship. Rossi, who is 24, turned down an invitation from U.S. coach Bruce Arena to play for the Americans in 2006. Rossi's refusal continues to draw the ire of American fans who have argued that he should have played for his country of birth. Overall, Prandelli's focus on youth - a promise he made when he took over the team - has come a long way in helping Italy reach its newfound form.
Not all the fans are on board with this new Italy team. Only 18,000 fans watched Italy clinch qualification at the Artemio Franchi Stadium, which seats nearly 48,000. Also, fans have not taken too kindly to the inclusion of Balotelli, who is black. Last November, Balotelli said he had grown sick of hearing racist abuse from fans and asked for help in the fight against racism in the Italian game. Adopted at age 3 by an Italian couple, Balotelli was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents. Previously a member of Italy's Under-21 team, the hot-headed Balotelli has not made it easy for fans to give him love. His antics, on and off the field, have landed him in hot water over the past few years.
Despite the issues surrounding the team, Italy fans will surely jump on the Azzurri bandwagon once the European Championship gets underway next June in Poland and Ukraine. If not, they could miss Italy's rebirth as once again one of the best teams in the world.