A glance at the goalscoring charts in Italy would suggest that, for Italian strikers at least, older is wiser when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net. Roma’s Francesco Totti, now 34, has just scored his 200th goal in the Serie A, while the evergreen Alessandro del Piero recently showed his class with a brilliant strike against Bari.
The 36-year-old Del Piero is partnered in the Juventus front line by 33-year-old Luca Toni, while AC Milan are eagerly awaiting the return of injured veteran Filippo Inzaghi, 36, to get them firing again. Leading them all is the top scorer in Serie A, Udinese’s 33-year-old marksman Antonio di Natale, and the list goes on. Yet, tempting though it may have been, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has turned his back on these golden oldies to focus on the future.
"If it had been a decisive last qualifier for the EURO, I’d have called up Totti and Del Piero," said Prandelli at the announcement of the Italy squad list prior to their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying match with Slovenia: "But if you want to plan for the future, age is a factor." Alongside Prandelli’s first choices Antonio Cassano, 28, and Alberto Gilardino, also 28, are younger hopefuls Giampaolo Pazzini, 26, Giuseppe Rossi, 24, Alessandro Matri, 26, and Sebastian Giovinco, 24.
Marco Borriello, 28, was left out "for technical reasons", while the prodigious Mario Balotelli, 20, was not considered due to the national side’s ethical code of conduct. After receiving a suspension from UEFA for a red card received when playing for Manchester City, Balotelli called Prandelli “to ask for help” and to express his regret at “always messing things up”.
Tears then goals
While Matri and Pazzini can no longer be considered as youngsters, per se, they take great credit for having stuck to their guns and succeeded in a league where foreign striking imports are the norm.
Alessandro Matri is a typical example of a hugely gifted Italian forward who is let go by one of the leading clubs, only to fight his way back into the limelight. Capable of playing as a lone front-man or a second striker, Matri is technically sound, strong in the air and a real livewire in and around the box. Those qualities did not prevent him from having to spend five years in the lower leagues after AC Milan released following a solitary appearance. His memories of Milan are not the best: "I stayed there from the age of 11 to 19 and I didn’t get much playing time. I used to cry when I went back home, but the experience forged my character.”
Without youngsters, Italian football is going nowhere. We need a generation change.
Finally back in Serie A with Cagliari, Matri wasted no time impressing, and Juventus came in for him in the winter transfer window, paying €2.5 million for an initial loan, with an option to secure a permanent deal for €15.5 million. Milan are no doubt regretting their decision, and Matri has a message for the big clubs. "I never gave up. It would be good if clubs had more faith in young Italians.”
One coach who has shown faith in Matri is Cesare Prandelli, whose request that he should join up with the national side was greeted enthusiastically by the man himself: "It’s a dream come true, My life has completely turned around.”
The case of Giampaolo Pazzini is somewhat different. The new Inter Milan recruit comes from a footballing family and has never deviated from a path to success that has seemed inevitable ever since he became European U-19 champion back in 2003. Named Best Young Player in Italy in 2006, he scored a memorable hat-trick for the Azzurri's U-21 side in the inaugural match at the new Wembley in 2007. His full debut for the senior side on 28 March 2009 against Montenegro came as no surprise, and only then did things take a turn for the worse. Sent off against Republc of Ireland, he then missed a penalty against Northern Ireland and only featured briefly in Italy’s doomed campaign at South Africa 2010.
Allied to Cassano in attack at Sampdoria, Pazzini’s game went up a gear this season, prompting Inter Milan to move for him in the January transfer window despite the fact he is cup-tied for the UEFA Champions League, having played in the preliminary round for la Samp.
“This is a dream to be playing in such a great team,” said Il Pazzo (the madman). He has made something of a dream start too, banging in a brace on his debut and helping Inter sustain their title challenge.
Giuseppe Rossi already has 19 international caps to his name, thanks to his consistently impressive performances in La Liga with Villarreal. The former Manchester United player has shone in the Italian shirt too, despite being left out of Marcello Lippi’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ squad at the last minute. Prandelli even made him captain for a friendly against Germany in February and was repaid when Rossi grabbed a late equalider in a 1-1 draw.
Providing Balotelli matures into the top-class striker many believe he can be, Cesare Prandelli will have a forward line he can count on for years to come. As Arrigo Sacchi, who was put in charge of Italy’s youth sides following the South African fiasco, said recently: "Without youngsters, Italian football is going nowhere. We need a generation change.”
With Prandelli in charge, that is just what Italy are getting.