With the self-belief befitting a coach of his vast experience and pedigree, Marcello Lippi is very much his own man. And despite the persistent media queries about the ageing legs of the world champions’ big-name stars, the Azzurri supremo appears set to keep faith with his veterans come the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.
Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Grosso, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Luca Toni have all breached the 30 mark, though it would be a real surprise if any of these Germany 2006 stalwarts were to miss out on this year’s showpiece. “If I was forced to take public opinion into account, four years ago I would have had to leave players like Cannavaro and Buffon at home and hand in my resignation,” said Lippi, in response to criticism of his selection policy.
"Since I started out as a coach, be it at club level or with the national team, my decisions have been dictated by one guiding principle: I’ve never let myself be swayed by campaigns coming from outside the camp. If I’m convinced that something needs doing, I see it through to the end.”
"Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the 2006 success which influences my decisions,” said the strategist who masterminded the Nazionale’s fourth FIFA World Cup crown. “In any case, in Italy you’re not judged on what you’ve done in the past: you’re judged on what comes next.”
Be that as it may, serious doubts have been raised as to whether the experience and charisma of Cannavaro in particular, the centre-back voted FIFA World Player for 2006 after his heroics on German soil, are enough to compensate for his lost yards of pace. Fellow defensive regulars Zambrotta, Grosso and Juventus’ Nicola Legrottaglie have also struggled to convince this season, while midfield warrior Gattuso is no longer an automatic starter at AC Milan. Indeed, only 32-year-old Buffon remains unimpeachable, and he can expect protection from club-mate Giorgio Chiellini, a relative spring chicken at 25.
That said, it hardly inspires confidence that Buffon and Chiellini are two of five Gli Azzurri regulars in a Juventus defence that has already conceded 47 goals in 32 Serie A encounters this season – a worse record than 14 fellow top-flight outfits. “You don’t judge a player’s quality on age or technical ability alone. Enthusiasm, experience, charisma, wisdom, international experience: they’re all part of the equation,” said the Italy boss.
“The World Cup is about seven games over a month, we don’t necessarily need all the players to be 24 years old. If I had to use this team over an entire league season I’d probably make some different selections. But for a month it’s not a problem,” Lippi continued, a viewpoint borne out by the fact his side conceded just seven goals in ten South Africa 2010 qualifiers – including two in their final match against Cyprus with top spot already assured.
In any case, in Italy you’re not judged on what you’ve done in the past: you’re judged on what comes next.
In the Nazionale’s most recent friendly match, which ended 0-0 against Cameroon, Lippi sprung something of a surprise by experimenting with a three-man backline, thus giving his team the option of switching to 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 should the need arise. “After a game for which I was missing six or seven key players and in which I gave debuts to two youngsters, everybody was saying that we looked a long way off the pace,” said the Italy supremo.
“You can’t compare it to our warm-up match from March 2006 when we beat Germany, because we had a full-strength side then. Against Cameroon we had to send out an improvised team because of all the absentees. I’m satisfied with what I saw.”
Those looking for bad omens have also unearthed common themes between Lippi’s side and the team under Enzo Bearzot, which triumphed at Spain 1982 only to exit at the second-round stage of Mexico 1986. Another bone of contention is a perceived failure to acknowledge the shortcomings exposed at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009, where the world champions fell at the first hurdle following 1-0 and 3-0 group defeats against Egypt and Brazil respectively.
“Have some faith in your team,” was the message from the former Juventus and Inter Milan boss. “We’re going to get all our first-choice players back and you’ll see that Italy will be ready. The adventure won’t start until May.”