Day 24…the final reckoning….

July 9, 2006

At Italia 90’, it was the combination of Toto Schillachi’s suddenly spectacular goal-scoring abilities and Walter Zenga’s ‘none shall pass’ mentality and keeper skills, which dragged the Azzurri to a respectable showing. On Yankee soil in 94’, it was the efforts of rear-guard stalwart Franco Baresi and the divine ponytail, Baggio, that propelled a largely mediocre Italian team all the way to the final. The Brazillian team which won that summit meeting, on penalties, was the most entertaining world cup team I have seen; Romario, Bebeto, Leonardo, Dunga, Taffarel. Typically I can’t recall any Brazilian defenders from that era, but that can be no surprise then all they did was ATTACK ; one ace in goal and ten attackers outfield. Wonderful to watch, and so was Roberto Baggio once he had found his rhythm.  

Towards the end of the 90s, the wave created by Juve and
Milan’s domination at home and abroad, began to break. The 98’ World cup was a waste of time for Italian football and though a few die-hard surfers managed to stay on the 90’s wave long enough to reach the beach of Tantalization, which proved to be ruled by France (2000 European championship final defeat), the next World cup, in Asia 2002, was again another lacklustre global tournament in terms of performances and results.

Since getting raped by the French, Italian football has been on the slide. However, the recent (and continuing) Capicoldi scandal and Pessotto’s suicide attempt may prove to be Rock Bottom for this descent into disappointment and despair, in which case the only possible movement is now : upwards. La Signora Vecchia disgraced, Buerlesconi’s beloved
Milan in the dock and the futures of many players and clubs still in doubt. Hardly the kind of situation one would expect to produce a world cup winning squad.
But Marcelo Lippi has magically extracted a team brimming with experience, youthful vigour, determination and talent, from the shit-heap of Serie A. The Paul Newman lookalike’s success as manager of Juve was largely due to his ability to pick players who he could get the very best from, both individual geniuses like Zidane and workhorses like the aforementioned, suicidal, Pessotto. But there is more to the erudite, cigar smoking tactician. He can not only read the game from a distance, but he can also feel the flow of the  play, as it is happening, which puts him in a perfect position to make successful substitutions. His management style if fluid, not rigid.  

In this year’s world cup,
Italy have been the strongest team. They have conceded only one goal, and that was a freak ‘og by Zaccardo, so it is accurate to say that Buffon is yet to be beaten by the strike of an opponent. Despite what many cliché-lovers will have you believe,
Italy haven’t been playing ‘ultra-defensive’ football. Far from it. If there is any credence to the common statement ‘they only have world class defenders’ then I would suggest that the strikers of every team who has so far played against Italy in this year’s finals to travel to
Italy to learn how to shoot from these ‘world class defenders’. I am more than happy to agree that Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Buffon are all magnificently talented players, but I also feel the need to offer praise to the dogged, unrivalled spirit of Gennaro Gattusso, the maturity and flair of Totti, the galaxy-class passing magic of Pirlo, the electrifying attacking endeavours of Grosso and perhaps also, the endearing athleticism of Perrotta.
Played 6, scored 11, conceded 1 (own goal by Zaccardo, not caused by any pressure from an opponent). 

Cannavaro and Zambrotta have been the stars of the tournament for me and
Italy, and if it isn’t one of that pair which scoops the golden ball, the award will be meaningless.

As for

I had them down as my dark horses(with Czech Rep.) before the tournament but then lost interest in their fortunes after seeing their dire showing against
Korea. Still a team with the qualities of Thuram, Makelele, Zidane, Henry and Ribery, was never likely to fail against
Togo and it was that match which served as a wake up call to the blatantly talented frogs. Once that main core of players found form, the whole team was transformed, reinvigorated. Victories over Spain and Brazil were impressive but the slim 1-0 victory over
Portugal was bland and uninspiring, worryingly insipid. Abidol and Sagnol provide fair defensive cover on the flanks, while Malouda acts as an adequate counterweight on the left, to Ribery’s right flank routine. There is a good balance to this team, but their real strength is focused through the centre : Thuram and Gallas at the back, Makelele and Viera as the muscle men in midfield, Zidane’s divine vision and technique orchestrate the play from the halfway line and beyond… and of course in attack, there is the solitary figure of Henry. And it is Thierry who I would have chosen over Ronaldinho to be blessed with consecutive ‘world player of the year’ honours. The Arsenal front-man plays in a much more competitive league(than horse-mouth Ronaldinho) and his club form is consistently phenomenal. Fortunately for Italy, he rarely shows anything but glimpses of that special club form, when he dons the blue jersey of
France. But still, obviously a major threat.

Italy are in their best run of world cup form since 1982 and they have a superior team to the french. Buffon is a million times more useful between the sticks than the often baffling Bartez, and Grosso and Zambrotta are in a different class to their opposite numbers of Sagnol and Abidol. I will concede that Zidane is an overall better player than Totti, though the Italian is capable of sublime moments of majestic god-given footballing genius. The midfield battle should be intriguing where we will see the dwarf-like Gattusso biting chunks out of Viera’s ankles.

I was very happy to see the french make it past Portugal without acquiring any disastrous bookings(Saha is hardly an integral player) because now we are approaching a final which will see the best of Italy face off against the best of France.  

Hopefully,  whatever the result of the final, the critics will stop exchanging ignorant remarks about the ‘terrible standard of Serie A’ because all of these Azzurri players ply their trade in Italy, and they have proved, already, that they are amongst the best footballing nations on the planet. Also, we should all note that the Juve players(del piero, zambrotta, cannavaro, buffon), who are under considerably more stress than every other player at the world cup, have all performed with admirable sportsmanship and quality which has surely gone some way to adding a bit of respect to the Turin club which finds itself currently embroiled- potentially in a more serious and criminal manner than the other clubs under investigation- in the most terrible match-rigging scandal of Italian history.  

Forza Azzurri….