There was a reassuring air of déjà vu about Italy on the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, with echoes of their triumphant campaign four years ago reverberating through their travelling party. Firstly sat the familiar presence of coach Marcello Lippi in the dugout, and then there was the captain’s armband still wrapped around the arm of Fabio Cannavaro, with the talented Gianluigi Buffon back between the sticks, Andrea Pirlo orchestrating attacks as ever and Gennaro Gattuso no less tenacious in midfield.
Add in the experience of Gianluca Zambrotta, Daniele De Rossi, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta and you have a long list of names associated with success, members of Italy’s so-called ‘Berlin Wall’ who together spurred the Squadra Azzurra to global glory at Germany 2006.
Four years have passed since that memorable triumph added a fourth star to the Italy shirt and, crucially, time has not been kind. The first cracks in the wall appeared near the base, with defenders Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Nesta replaced by Giorgio Chiellini and Domenico Criscito, and while the newcomers possess obvious potential, they so far lack the experience to merit comparisons with their famous forebears.
Indeed, having conceded just two goals in seven matches at Germany 2006 – including one from the penalty spot – Lippi’s current crop shipped five in three on South African soil. “If we can’t win a single match in three attempts and fail to beat teams like New Zealand and Slovakia, then it’s best we go home and think about what isn’t working,” was Buffon's frank appraisal.
The new generation similarly lacked worthy successors to Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Simone Pepe, Ricardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio all look to have bright futures ahead of them, but none was able to truly fill the void. “In the past I was able to create a good mental vibe and movement on the pitch, but this time I couldn’t manage it,” commented Lippi, lamenting his failure to achieve a functioning blend between the two generations.
Italy’s lack of imagination going forward also left thoughts drifting to the likes of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, players backed for a place in the squad by innumerable fans but ultimately left at home. In addition, the gifted Fabio Quagliarella made the cut only to be used sparingly, with Lippi seemingly placing greater faith in disappointing trio Vincenzo Iaquinta, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Di Natale.
“When I say I’m responsible, I mean it,” explained the coach. “I’m responsible for all the choices I made in the squad and have made since the first match. Yes, I could have played this player or that one, but the real problem was the failure to get this team to express itself.”
The former Juventus boss was lightning quick to accept blame for Italy’s elimination, and he swatted away any attempts by his players to share culpability. “We’re all responsible as we failed to do what the coach asked of us,” volunteered Criscito after the Slovakia loss, but Lippi would have none of it. “The players aren’t at fault – I didn’t prepare this team well enough,” he retorted.
“When a team goes into a match as important as this with fear in their stomachs and heavy legs, it’s because the coach hasn’t prepared them well enough mentally, physically and tactically.”
The 62-year-old’s successor can therefore have no doubt which aspects will need to be worked on to lead La Nazionale back to the global summit, or at least render them capable of beating the likes of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia – all of whom frustrated Italy in South Africa.
Lippi certainly feels his old side will soon be a force to be reckoned with again. “It’s difficult to believe that this was the Italy team that you saw here,” he said. “It’s always the leader who’s responsible. I don’t want to sound like a victim, and forgive me if I lack humility, but I think I played a role in our success, so I must have one in our failure. This is a difficult moment for Italian football, but our true level isn’t the one you saw in this tournament.”