No team secured a play-off spot faster than Italy in European Zone qualifying for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011™ in Germany. Pietro Ghedin's side topped Group 7 without losing a single match, drawing just once against closest group rivals Finland. Indeed, few are doubting that La Nazionale are going to be a force to be reckoned with next June/July.
A few days ago coach Pietro Ghedin took time out for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com in which he explained the reasons behind his team's fine form: "Hard work and quality, along with our new-found confidence, are the secrets to our success," said the 57-year-old former Fiorentina and Lazio defender, who is convinced his side are now ready to compete with the best.
"Let me make it clear; my players aren't as self-effacing as they used to be. They're playing their own style now and they thoroughly deserved first place" he continued. "We're in the play-offs now and we don't want to miss out on this wonderful opportunity." The best eight teams from European qualifying are set to go head to head in four two-legged playoffs between 11 and 16 September, with the winners of each tie qualifying directly for Germany 2011. A fifth European side will be determined by a second round of play-offs, and they will subsequently take on the third-placed team from the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone for the final spot at the finals.
Ghedin warned his competitors that Italy, who currently lie 11th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Rankings, are not to be underestimated. "The rankings are probably a fair reflection of our current standing in the women's game, but all our opponents will need to take us seriously if we're on form," said the man who has been in charge of his Italy's women's national team since 2005, having previously worked as an assistant coach for the men's side.
Italy are aiming to reach their first FIFA Women's World Cup since USA 1999, when they failed to progress beyond the group stages. There are high hopes this time round after attacking trio Pamela Conti, Patrizia Panico and Melania Gabbiadini netted almost two dozen goals between them in qualifying, but Ghedin insists there is far more to his team than just those three. "Of course they're very important, but I want to emphasise that they wouldn't have been able to score that many goals if they hadn't had the support of the rest of the team. They have many great skills and they fit into the team perfectly."
Italy's previous best showing at a FIFA Women's World Cup came at China 1991, where they reached the quarter-final stage before eventually losing 3-2 to Norway. Ghedin's girls again reached the last eight at the UEFA European Championship 2009 in Finland, impressing with group-stage victories over England and Russia before bowing out 2-1 against reigning world champions Germany. However, that disappointment has only made Conti, Panico, Gabbiadini and Co. even more determined to go a step further at Germany 2011.
Ghedin, who believes hosts Germany and the US Girls will be run close for next year's title by one of the Asian nations, is refusing to look beyond qualification at the moment. "Women's football has developed extraordinarily over the last few years and it's becoming more and more popular. If Italy do manage to qualify, it'll be a great chance for us to take part in a fantastic event." Only two play-off matches stand in their way, and the Italians will discover their fate when the draw takes place on 30 August.