Tuesday, June 06, 2006

#7: Azzurri


Where? South Central Europe. The thing that looks like a dominatrix's (dominatrice's?) boot.

How big? Pretty big for Europe. About the size of Arizona. Population is extremely dense, about twice the size of California win less space.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook... It's one of the oldest nations in the world, in that the population trends older - not as many babies born. Also, I didn't know that there were two age minimums for voting - 18 for normal elections, 25 for Senatorial elections. That's kind of odd. Also, there are more cell phones in the country than people. Really, how can that be?

Geopolitical significance? Italy is one of the largest economies in Europe and takes a spot as one of the most important Europoean nations on the world stage. Their involvement in the Iraq War was a pretty significant international matter, and the effects of that involvement led to the international interest in Italy's recent election, where AC Milan owner and former Prime MInister Silvio Berlusconi was defeated by Romano Prodi. While the Vatican is technically a different country, Italy in a way is the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Church and its estimated one billion believers.

Fun? Italy has a claim as one of the inventors of soccer as we know it. It traces back to Calcio Fiorentina, a middle ages game where young citizens of Florence (soldiers at times) would meet in the town square and beat the hell out of one another. 27 players per team. You could use your hands or feet. You had to get the ball over one particular area of a wall. The pitch is a giant sand pit. You can punch, kick, tackle, asswhip other players. The game lasted 50 minutes, and they still play it every June in Florence.


Italy is one of the world's best footballing nations. Only Brazil has won more World Cups. Italy's greatest triumphs came in the Cup's early days, when Italy triumphed in the first two Cups it entered (the second and third installations in 1934 and 1938). Italy added a third star to their shield in 1982 with a win over West Germany. Italy has made two other finals (1970 and 1994) and two more semifinals (1978 and 1990). Italy has qualified for every World Cup since 1958, and advanced out of the group stage in every cup since 1974. Only Brazil can claim a more impressive record in the World Cup.

Italy's professional league has declined some in recent years, but for a long time Serie A was the best league in the world. Recent scandals of racism, fascism, hooliganism, and rampant corruption have allowed other leagues to catch and possibly surpass the Italian league. The most recent scandal affecting Italy and most specifically Juventus (one of Italy and the world's most storied clubs) only puts another black mark on the league. It'll be seen as to how this scandal affects the Azzurri, since several players on the roster have ties to Juventus.

Qualifying this time around was a little easier than it probably should've been. The Azzurri were drawn with three other pretty good teams - Slovenia, Norway and Scotland. They lost at Slovenia and drew at Norway and Scotland, but won the rest of them, topping the group by 5 points.

The roster is one of only two nations with every single player playing professionally in their own country (Saudi Arabia is the other). But unlike the Saudis, Italy is one of the three best leagues in the world, so the roster is loaded with top flight talent. There are 5 from Juventus and AC Milan players, 4 from Palermo, 3 from Roma, 2 from Lazio, and 1 from Udinese, Livorno and Inter. The defense is typically the strength of Italy, and this time around is no different, thanks to recoveries from Nesta and Zambrotta and the veteran Cannavarro. The midfield should be good with Pirlo, Gattuso and especially Totti (who probably deseves his own paragraph). The attack will be something to watch out for, as Italy has been grooming young players. Will they go with Luca Toni and irascible Alberto Gilardino, or will they rely on aging but still potent Del Piero and Inzaghi? We'll see.

The one to watch is between the pipes. Gianluigi Buffon, along with group rival Petr Cech, is one of the world's best keepers. With a solid defense ahead of him, goals will be tough to get. And do not bet against Italy in the event of penalty kicks.

The draw, however, is difficult. The Czech Republic, the USA and Ghana all could beat Italy under the right circumstances. But look at history: Italy doesn't bow out in the first round, especially not when the Cup's in Europe.

The opener is fortuitous scheduling for Italy, facing a Ghana team that could be dangerous were they not playing under the brightest spotlight for the first ever time. Some writers think this is a scary matchup, and compare it to Senegal-France in 2002. Perhaps. I think Ghana plays with such high energy at the start that they somehow score first. But the excitement overworks them and adrenaline can only take you so far. Italy withstands the rush for the first half, draws a PK in the second, and scores in extra time when the Ghanaians are exhausted. 2-1 Italy.

The second match is the dangerous one. The USA play in Kaiserslautern, and this American team is much different from the one Italy dispatched in 1990 (and did you know that the biggest margin of victory an Italian team has ever had was over the USA? 9-0 in 1948). Arena's scheme is perfect for this match, and the USA uses speed to move forward, and plays much more physical in the midfield than Italy had expected. The Americans won't be pushed around. A Donovan strike and a McBride header put the Yanks up 2-0. A late PK brings Italy back (and pisses me off something fierce). 2-1 USA, but that goal could prove important.

The final match is likely the most crucial for Italy. The size and keeping of the Czech Republic could make this match a bore to watch, but I think it'll actually be interesting. Italy knows it needs a win to advance, and they push things to the limit. A tired Czech team gives up two goals in 5 minutes just before the half, but the Czech's get one back in stoppage time. In the second half, Italy pulls another penalty out of their hat (their third of the cup) and seals the win 3-1. They win the group on goal differential, with a nod to the penalty granting refs.

The Round of 16 brings Croatia, second place in Group F. We finally see the brand of muddy, rough soccer that has made Italy not fun to watch for a while. Del Piero scores in the second half, in a game nobody will care to remember.

The quarterfinals sets Italy up against Cup darlings Ukraine. Shevchenko, well rested and fully healed, comes out hot, streaking away from defenders and scoring the opener. Gilardino, the heir apparent at Milan, equalizes. But this is Sheva's cup. In the 80th minute he volleys in a cross that stuns all of Italy. 2-1 Ukraine. Seriously.

Italy will look back on this cup much like the last few. They advanced somewhat sloppily, but moved along until they ran into a team playing at the top of their game. This time, it won't be the hosts, unlike in 1998 and 2002, unless they make the finals.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Italy would be... A team that has a tremendous history and tradition, with amazing and insane fans. A team that expects a title every time out, but in truth their best days may have been in the past. A team that has trouble adapting to changes in the game, but they still play at an incredibly high level. A team known for their blue. Italy is Kentucky.

Be patient for my 36 part Calcio Fiorentina World Cup Preview.