Both are monuments of the game with forthright personalities, both were key to Italy’s triumph at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ – and now, four years on, both are readying themselves for one last tilt at glory. Marcello Lippi and Gennaro Gattuso faced fierce pressure in Germany after 24 barren years for the Squadra Azzurra, but having brought the Trophy home and suffered a barrage of criticism in the last few months, everyone involved with Italy appears relaxed ahead of their tournament opener against Paraguay on Monday.
“I’m not nervous at all,” said Lippi, back as coach since 2008, as soon as he touched down on South African soil. That impressive nonchalance could even serve as the world champions’ motto as they embark on their title defence. “I’m 62 years old, I’ve done this job for 30 years and I’m lucky enough to do it at the highest level. I’ve won the World Cup, which is the most prestigious title around. So why would I be nervous?”
The former Juventus tactician clearly does not mind that his side are being billed as outsiders at best, preferring to focus on the mounting joy he feels as he returns to the world stage. “Four years ago, when we were leaving Pisa, only one person came to see us off,” he said. “And that was a friend of mine who came along with a banner saying ‘Forza Marcello’. Today, hundreds of fans come to watch our training sessions. We’re not used to that kind of enthusiasm.”
Fuelled by enthusiasm
The kind of enthusiasm Lippi is familiar with has usually come in greatest quantity from Gennaro Gattuso, and the midfield terrier is likely to be fuelled by enthusiasm once again as he contests his last ever games at international level. After all, when Italy leave South Africa, the AC Milan stalwart will fold away his Nazionale shirt for the final time. “I’m turning 33 and, given the position I play in, it’s normal to leave my place to players with more gas in the tank,” he said in the lead-up to the Group F meeting with Paraguay.
“Everyone has known what kind of person I am during my ten years with the national team. I need to give everything and to feel that it’s important when I do something. Without that enthusiasm, I’d only be an average player in the third division, and I wouldn’t be happy.”
That outstanding commitment has perhaps worked to Gattuso’s disadvantage in recent years, costing him a first-team spot for both club and country since Italy’s triumphant night in Berlin. Now mostly used as a substitute at the San Siro, he also disputed just four qualifiers on the road to South Africa 2010. “The only regret of my whole career up until now is how I’ve dealt with my injuries,” he said, pinpointing a knee complaint last summer in particular.
“I felt I was stronger than I was. I played the Confederations Cup on one leg and then I started the season at Milan with an ankle injury. It’s entirely my fault, because of my personality, and I’ve paid the price.”
An opportunity to seize
Back at his best at last, if Gattuso starts on the bench against Paraguay it will not be for fitness reasons. “For the first time in a year and a half, I can train without treatment and I don’t feel pain in my knee when I wake up in the morning,” explained the two-time UEFA Champions League winner. “I’m ready, and if I’m not on the pitch against Paraguay, rest assured that I’ll be the first to support and encourage my team-mates.”
They are likely to appreciate all the help they can get in what is sure to be a tricky first assignment in Cape Town. Paraguay will kick off their fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup finals feeling they boast their best ever generation of talent, with a prolific attack now allied with a rearguard noted for its solidity.
Gattuso has come up against plenty of gifted sides down the years, though, and knows exactly what Italy must do to overcome their South American obstacle. “They fight for every ball and will be aggressive for the full 90 minutes,” he said. “We’ll need to be at the same level – and believe me, when it comes to being compact and defending well, we know what we’re doing.”
Gattuso knows more than most, of course, having long epitomised tenacity and combativeness, and he is keen to prove that passion can trump pressure once more as he looks to end a nightmare season on a high. “I’ve had a difficult year, but Lippi has given me an enormous opportunity. Now it’s up to me to seize it.”