Returning to the FIFA World Cup™ after their frustrating and truncated 2010 campaign, Italy had every right to be apprehensive when their talismanic keeper Gianluigi Buffon picked up an injury on the eve of their first Group D outing against England in Manaus.
There were fears as to how the Italians would react, especially with several members of the Azzurra squad having also been on duty in South Africa four years ago, when Buffon had to come off at half-time of their opening game and took no further part in the tournament.
The feeling of déjà vu was inescapable, though on this occasion the Italians would not be weighed down by Buffon’s absence, responding to it with the win that had eluded them in 2010. They achieved it with a blend of determination, team spirit and the confidence of the player called in to deputise for their injured No1.
Despite all his years of experience at the highest level, Salvatore Sirigu could have been forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all on his World Cup debut. Looking solid and reliable, however, he made a string of fine stops against an England side intent on testing his ability from distance, showing the same kind of composure on the pitch as he later displayed off it when talking to FIFA.com. If Sirigu’s assured showing is anything to go by, the Italians are set for a lengthy stay in Brazil.
“I was relaxed because I knew I was going to play,” said the Paris Saint-Germain custodian. “I had a good night’s sleep, though I was a little stressed today because everyone started to ring me. It was then that I realised that I would soon be taking on a big commitment: playing in a World Cup match and with the pressure of replacing someone of the stature of Gigi.”
He added: “I soon got over any anxiety I had, though. My team-mates helped me a lot, which is one of the things that makes this side what it is. As soon as I went out on to the pitch for the warm-up I felt nice and relaxed.”
There to help make Sirigu feel at home were seasoned campaigners such as Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele de Rossi, both veterans of South Africa 2010, which explains why they knew exactly what was needed to help the understudy slot in seamlessly.
“The situation four years ago was a tough one for us because we lost both Buffon and (Andrea) Pirlo too,” Chiellini told FIFA.com. “But we knew we could count on Sirigu, who had a fantastic game. We’re a strong side with 23 first-choice players who work their socks off and run, defend and fight together. That’s something that’s going to help us in the future.”
Pondering the differences between now and the last World Cup, De Rossi said: “It’s worth remembering that in 2010 Buffon had a hernia and missed the whole World Cup, but that’s not the case here and we’re waiting for him to come back. Luckily for us, though, we had a great goalkeeper in the team today. He was ready for the occasion and played a fantastic game.”
A safe pair of hands
The Italy players were a picture of contentment and satisfaction as they left the Arena Amazonia, though it would be unwise for them to think that they have done the hard part. While beating long-time rivals England in their opening game has made their path to qualification a lot clearer than it might have been, Costa Rica’s shock defeat of Uruguay, which put Los Ticos at the top of the group, means that Italy cannot afford to become complacent about the mission still ahead of them.
“I said before the tournament that we needed to watch out for Costa Rica because nobody was talking about them,” said Italy’s new-found hero between the posts. “You only remember the world champions, though I had a feeling they might pull off something big. I think people forget a little bit about this team, one that is strong and has got some exciting players who play in the UEFA Champions League. What’s more, they’re also used to playing in this climate, which means we need to watch out for them.”
After winning their first world finals match in eight years, Italy have finally lifted a huge weight from their shoulders, a weight made all the more onerous by their unimpressive results in their warm-up matches.
“It was good to win because it showed that we need to be a little more patient,” said Sirigu. “We were getting some criticism but this is going to leave us feeling more relaxed.”
Sirigu is hoping things stay that way in the next few days, regardless of whether Buffon shakes off his injury or not, as the PSG man knows very well what his role in the team involves.
“If I had to carry on playing, I’d be ready. We’re hoping for him to come back, though,” acknowledged Italy’s No2. “He’s a big name and he did his bit today by saying a few words before the game. So there’s no problem at all. When he recovers, he knows that he’s going to get his old place back and I know where mine will be. It’s as simple as that.”