Some teams can expect to be ranked among the favourites for every international tournament they take part in. One long-standing member of this elite group are Italy, who will once again be backed by many to prevail when the Men's Olympic Football Tournament starts next month. The Azzurri's immense reputation has of course been earned along the way, but on the Olympic stage they are anything but titans, with their one and only gold having come 72 years ago at Berlin 1936.
Berlin was also the scene of their most recent major title, the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, and those two triumphs on German soil will be very much in the thoughts of coach Pierluigi Casiraghi as he leads his charges in search of glory in Beijing. Conscious of his squad's strengths, the former international striker fears no one. "We're not inferior to any other team at the Games," he said a few hours before leaving for China. "Only Brazil and Argentina possibly have that little extra thanks to players over 23 who have both talent and international experience. The most important thing is motivation, and we're not lacking that."
Along with their hunger to succeed, Italy will feed off considerable confidence after some excellent warm-up results. They began preparations at the Toulon Under-21 tournament in June, beating Beijing rivals Côte d'Ivoire, the USA and Japan on their way to lifting the trophy on the Mediterranean coast. Pleased to have masterminded Italy's first ever success in the tournament, Casiraghi banished any lingering doubts he may have had about the personnel he wanted with him to the far east.
Giovinco: small stature, big talent
As so often in the past, this Italian side is built on a rock-solid defence, this time marshalled by natural leader Domenico Criscito, who learnt the ropes at Juventus. Young Lazio full-back Lorenzo De Silvestri will also be present to lend his abilities, but the real eye-catching talents lie further up the pitch, where Giuseppe Rossi ought to need no introduction after his performances for Parma and Villarreal. Likewise, Robert Acquafresca made a real name for himself last term courtesy of 11 Serie A goals for Cagliari, while the only player aged over 23, Tommaso Rocchi, has notched up 59 strikes for Lazio and boasts three full international caps.
Despite their obvious attributes, however, all risk being eclipsed by Italian football's latest prodigy, Sebastian Giovinco. The Juventus attacking midfielder stands just 1.63m tall, yet he rarely goes unnoticed on the pitch. "He's fundamental to the team's play and in terms of giving his team-mates confidence," explained his coach.
Blessed with outstanding technique, his strengths include laser-guided free kicks, mazy dribbles and expert passing, all of which have Juve fans pinpointing him as the logical successor to Alessandro Del Piero. More immediately, he will be key to Italian fortunes next month - and in that sense his style brings to mind that of a certain Gianfranco Zola, Casiraghi's coaching assistant.
The ultimate dream
A legend for Chelsea and Cagliari after starting his playing career alongside Diego Maradona at Napoli, Zola also heads to Beijing confident that the Azzurri are just as gifted as they are united. "We're lucky to have quality players who are also good people," he said. "This team deserves to win the gold medal. It's a pleasure to coach them. They're willing to work hard and have created a good spirit. This team could perform well in the Italian championship."
The idea of reuniting all the same players for Serie A action obviously belongs to the realm of dreams, but the one dream currently occupying Italian minds is that of winning the country's first gold in this event for 72 years. Casiraghi believes his troops can deliver, and he was delighted to receive a visit from Marcello Lippi recently, when the 2006 FIFA World Cup winning coach came to encourage the squad ahead of their departure.
"There's always a lot to learn from someone who's won the World Cup," said Casiraghi modestly. "The Olympic Games are comparable. It will be a big experience both professionally and personally for all of us, myself included. Taking part is already a success in itself, so winning gold would be the ultimate dream."