Outsiders Italy on a learning curve
© AFP

Just a few months after finishing runners-up in the 2013 UEFA European U-17 Championship, their best ever performance in four appearances in the continental finals, Italy are ready to take on the role of underdogs with nothing to lose at the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013.

I Azzurrini have graced the world finals at this age level four times – hosting the inaugural FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1991 – but have only reached the last eight once, at Nigeria 2009, when they went out to Switzerland.

If their form in May’s European finals in Slovakia is anything to go by, however, Daniele Zoratto’s squad have every reason to believe that they can outdo their predecessors. Embarking on a storming run, the Italians went all the way to the final, where they went down narrowly on penalties to Russia after the match ended goalless.

“That tournament was a very rewarding experience for us,” Zoratto told FIFA.com, expressing his belief that their European adventure will stand them in good stead for UAE 2013. “At this level every game is decisive and needs to be approached with maximum concentration. You need character to win matches like that.”

The Italians have certainly needed plenty of character to put their agonising shoot-out defeat to the Russians behind them, as their coach explained: “I think my players have got over their disappointment now. Obviously there’s still a little bitterness about getting so close and falling short because opportunities like that don’t come up very often. They’ve calmed down, though.”

Team spirit
Zoratto, who won his one and only cap in 1993 under Arrigo Sacchi – the man he cites as his inspiration –, is banking on his captain Alberto Cerri to spearhead Italy’s challenge in the UAE.

Standing 6’4 tall and weighing 82 kg, the combative and imposing Cerri has scored 12 goals in 26 outings for the national U-17s and is already being tipped for full international honours with La Nazionale. Bought by Juventus last May, Cerri will nevertheless continue his education at Parma, the club where he has learned his trade and where he made his Serie A debut at the tender age of 16 years and 348 days.

A Parma man himself in the early 1990s, Zoratto said that while the current generation might be short on outstandingly gifted performers, he can count on a core of players with some fine individual qualities: “Above all we’ve got a group of players that are so well knit that they have an immediate grasp of what’s going on, both on the pitch and off it. That last point is essential, especially at their age.”

Despite having Cerri’s prodigious talents to call on, Italy have been lacking a little punch up front, a shortcoming they would pay dearly for in the final against the Russians in May, when they missed several presentable chances.

Lamenting their wayward finishing on that occasion, the 51-year-old, Luxembourg-born Zoratto said: “That’s right. We lacked a little bit of determination, especially in the penalty shootout, where one or two looked to be a little overconfident. They’ve learned the lesson though.”

The South American and African teams will be the toughest, mainly because they’ve got the physical strength that the European players don’t have. That’s going to be a very important weapon for them.
Italy U-17 coach Daniele Zoratto on his side's competition at UAE 2013

An example to follow
I Azzurrini have begun their preparations for UAE 2013, taking on neighbours and fellow qualifiers Austria in a recent warm-up match, which they lost 2-1.

“We haven’t done quite so much preparation as they have, which is why I’m not attaching too much importance to the result,” said the coach. “It was a good lesson for us though, because we’ll be playing teams like them at the World Cup.”

In identifying Italy’s most dangerous rivals in the UAE, Zoratto said: “The South American and African teams will be the toughest, mainly because they’ve got the physical strength that the European players don’t have. That’s going to be a very important weapon for them.”

In making that observation, the Italy coach, whose team will be going up against Uruguay, Côte d’Ivoire and New Zealand in Group B, perhaps had Japan 1993 in mind.  On that occasion that two African teams reached the final, with Nigeria beating Ghana, while Chile finished third.

The Italy side that appeared at that competition featured one Francesco Totti, the tournament providing him with a springboard to launch his outstanding career.

Reminiscing on his experiences in the Far East, the Roma legend had this to say to FIFA.com: “I was lucky enough to play in the 1993 tournament in Japan. We didn’t win but it was still an important stage in my development. I’m sure the same will be true for the Azzurrini players who’ll be taking part in the world finals in the United Arab Emirates.

“I wish all the players representing Italy on the pitch the best of luck and I hope they will have the same positive experience that I did.”