Having qualified for their 14th consecutive FIFA World Cup™ finals since 1962, Italy can pride themselves on their superb attendance record on the global stage. With their 18th appearance now guaranteed, and four titles under their belts, they have now reached more FIFA World Cups than any side other than Brazil (20).
From the outside, then, it might appear as if little has changed. After all, La Nazionale always seem to progress to the big tournaments, even if their domestic league has lost some of its allure. Scratch under the surface, however, and things start to look a bit different, with coach Cesare Prandelli cut from very distinct cloth to Helenio Herrera, inventor of the Catenaccio system so often imitated in Italy.
"It's now obvious that you can't get results without playing attractive football," Prandelli has said, as he continues to instigate a sea change in the Squadra Azzurra set-up.
Now playing a more expansive style, Italy have been vindicated by their resultsand are making no effort to hide their ambitions ahead of Brazil 2014. FIFA.com takes a closer look a team on the rise.
Ethics and tacticsWhen Prandelli took over the reins in autumn 2010, Italy were in the doldrums. Four years after achieving glory at Germany 2006, they had fallen at the first hurdle in South Africa, and the incoming coach laid down a refreshing agenda. "Results aren't a priority," explained the former Juventus midfielder. "First of all we need to create a new bond between the team and the fans."
For a side renowned for eking out results, this was already a step into the unknown, and Prandelli set about building his squad based on three main principles: humility, education and discipline. Every player hoping to represent the national team was told he had to earn the shirt, while a new code of ethics was introduced to put a stop to indiscretions.
Change was afoot on the tactical front too, though like his predecessor, Marcello Lippi, Prandelli drew strength from a spine of Juve *stalwarts, with irrepressible goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon wearing the armband and centre-back Giorgio Chiellini feeding the ball to Andrea Pirlo, *La Nazionale's peerless purveyor of assists.
Further forward, Prandelli has kept faith with Mario Balotelli, despite some of the headlines generated by the young striker. In the decisive qualifier against the Czech Republic, for example, Balotelli initially marked his return from suspension by picking up an early booking and missing two gilt-edged chances.
In the dugout, Prandelli barely flinched, and 'Super Mario' went on to hit the winner from a penalty – his 20th successful spot kick in a row – before a polite chat with the referee at the final whistle. "It's good," commented the coach. "He was able to hold himself back."
Evolution and ambitionMore than just a meaningless anecdote, that episode reflected a quiet revolution in the attitude of a squad buoyed by its growing team spirit. As Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez explained during the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, "Italy have changed their mentality", and the focus on the human side has been as significant as any work on tactics and technique.
For Tabarez, Prandelli has forged a team "that knows its own limits and exploits its qualities to the full" while "never losing its head and keeping itself in the game by adapting".
That analysis was borne out by the match against the Czechs, with Prandelli changing his system three times in response to the scoreline, switching from 3-4-2-1 to 4-5-1 in order to press more in midfield before seeing out the game in a 4-3-3 formation. Naturally, Italy are also able to protect a lead when necessary, their old instincts still coming in handy.
But what has been even more noticeable is their ability to channel their thirst for victory into competitive matches, where they have lost just three times under Prandelli – twice to Spain and once to Brazil. Friendlies, meanwhile, have served as an ongoing testing ground, with Prandelli's troops winning only four out of 17.
Despite booking their ticket to Brazil with an unprecedented two games to spare, the man in charge knows that work remains. That was why he sent out a discrete appeal to Italy's most powerful clubs when he criticised "a lack of physical sharpness" among his players and, above all, "the lack of playing time given to youngsters under 21 who aren't starters but need to play in order to grow".
All the same, Prandelli has confidence in the talent at his disposal and the burgeoning team spirit in the Nazionale ranks. "There are four or five very strong nations, but the best teams don't always win," he said, with his contract set to expire after Brazil 2014. "We have desire and a few ideas of our own. The World Cup is a dream and we want to go all the way."