Having fulfilled their objective of reaching the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, a relaxed Italy side are looking forward to a tournament in which they believe anything can happen.
Pasquale Salerno's Azzurrini checked into the finals when they reached the last four of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship. Despite going down 2-0 to eventual champions Germany in the semis, the Italians could look back with satisfaction on a tournament in which they emerged from a tough group at the expense of Spain and France.
As far as the boys in blue are concerned, just reaching Nigeria has been an achievement in itself. Their recent record at this age level leaves a lot to be desired. After finishing bottom of their group at Japan 1993, Italy failed to appear at the next five FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, making their return at Peru 2005. Now, having missed out on qualification again two years ago, they are back on the big stage once more, determined to emulate their illustrious elders and become champions of the world.
With that goal in mind, Salerno's youngsters have been hard at work, playing a couple of warm-up games against Czech Republic before continuing with their preparations for Nigeria at the national training centre at Coverciano.
The aim of the Italians' intensive build-up is to bridge the stamina gap separating them from other countries, a shortcoming first identified by Francesco Rocca, Salerno's predecessor in the job and now the coach of the U-20 side about to take on the world's best at Egypt 2009. "We are going to stress the importance of strength of character and physical fitness," Salerno tells FIFA.com. "At this age level those aspects are vital if you want to have a good tournament."
"We like to play an attacking team game and get our full-backs involved as much as possible," he explains before pointing to two of his side's major failings, which he will be hoping to iron out before the tournament gets under way. "We sometimes suffer from lapses of concentration in defence and that has cost us dear at times. At the other end of the pitch we often lack a killer instinct, something that stops us from converting the many chances we create."
The ultimate perfectionist, Salerno is a firm believer in the maxim that football is a team game, believing every player to be as important as each other. That said, he picks out midfielders Lorenzo Grisetig, Marco Fossati and Alessandro de Vitis, strikers Simone Dell'Agnello and Stephan el Shaarawi and defender Vincenzo Camilleri as Italy's players to watch, most of them with Serie A experience already under their belts.
The sky is the limit
The young Italians will need all their know-how to negotiate their way out of a challenging but nevertheless wide-open Group F, which begins with a showdown against Algeria. "They have some very technical players and they're used to the African climate," comments Salerno.
Next up for the Italians come Uruguay, described by the coach as being "almost at the same level as Brazil and Argentina", followed by the final group game against a Korea Republic side he describes as "very dangerous with some extremely quick players".
It is a section that looks too close to call, though Salerno sees no reason why his fledglings cannot emerge from it and reach the latter stages of the competition.
"We know we have a very competitive team," he says. "That's why we haven't set ourselves any objectives or any limits. We are extremely motivated and I think we can go a long way."
And should they do so, Salerno is fully aware of the importance it could have on the future of his aspiring charges. "The World Cup is a unique occasion in the life of a footballer, and for a 17-year-old boy it is a chance for them to get noticed in what is an international event of the highest class."