As a big fan of Italian football my expectations were low as start of the 2012 UEFA European Championship approached. After the Azzurri crashed out in South Africa in 2010, I thought their approach this season didn’t provide enough experience to compete on the international level. Yet their convincing 2-1 victory over Germany in the semi-finals has reignited the excitement we experienced in 2008 when Italy defeated France to win the World Cup in Germany.
There are only a few holdovers from the 2008 World Cup team, including world class keeper, Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom bring experience and leadership to the 2012 UEFA squad (DeRossi and Barzagli were also on the ’08 squad). The 2010 World Cup was a forgettable event for Italy. Injuries to both Buffon and Pirlo, as well as an aging Azzurri saw them crash out in the group stage, finishing last. It was truly a low point for Italian football.
Enter Cesare Prandelli, succeeding 2006 World Cup manager, Marcello Lippi, who was a favorite, but rather set in his way when it came to the “old guard” who has worn the kit of the Azzurri. Prandelli wasn’t afraid to make changes, which he did. Many of the well known, now aging footballers were not recalled for international duty, the up and coming younger names got their chance.
Expectations, in my mind were not high entering this tournament, but the team did seem to have a good mix of old and new. It comes as no surprise that Buffon (119 caps) and Pilro (88 caps) are leading the way for Italia at age 33 and 34 respectively. On the other end are the young guns, players like Mario Balotelli, 21 years old (13 caps) and Riccardo Montolivo, 27 (36 caps) and Claudio Marchisio, 26 years old (25 caps). These will be names representing Italy in Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.
While their success in Euro 2012 has been wonderful, I believe it could be short lived. It’s great to see Balotelli playing very well (4 goals) and better yet, keep his head together and playing like the up and coming superstar he could he. There’s also some good younger talent in the midfield, but no “maestro” like Pirlo to control the game. I like Daniele De Rossi, but he is more of a defensive midfielder and doesn’t manage the game like Pirlo. We might have to wait and see, Pirlo will be 35 when the World Cup rolls around, he might be available for Brazil.
Mario Ballotelli has been playing above expectations. The knock against him has been his “disciplinary problems” a few years back at Inter while Jose Mourinho was manager. “Balotelli continued to be the subject of racist chants throughout the season, becoming the focus of Juventus fans even during games not involving Inter, leading to Juventus being fined twice and the club ultimately punished with a partial stadium closure” (source). Now at Manchester City under Roberto Mancini, Ballotelli has been playing much better. During this tournament he is garnering consideration as player of the tournament.
More pressing issues are in goal. Behind Buffon is a total of 7 caps between Salvatore Sigiru (age 25) and Morgan De Sanctis (age 35). At age 34, I could see Buffon returning for one more shot at glory in Brazil. Hopefully during that time we could see another keeper step up and represent the national team. The only other recent call up was Emiliano Viviano (6 caps). Buffon’s leadership and experience has made the best keeper in the world and has put Italy into the position they are in now, to possibly win Euro 2012 when they face Spain on Sunday.
Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Italy’s national team and fans should be proud at how the team has come together and played the last month. It does provide fans with a bright future with young talent being capped. Still there are some questions to answer. With any luck it will be the guidance of Prandelli and the combination of young talent and experience that wins the Henri Delaunay Trophy and allows Italy to qualify and be competitive for World Cup 2014.