Italy has advanced to the semifinals of the Confederations Cup for the first time in their history after winning their first two games in the group stage. Saturday, they square off against Brazil with the top spot in the group—and the ability to avoid Spain in the semis—on the line.
Now for the million-dollar (Euro?) question: Should Italian fans care?
Italian soccer lovers are notorious for their fickle interests. If it's not the Serie A or the Champions League, odds are it's viewed as a distraction. The World Cup and Euros command some interest but the Coppa Italia? The Europa League? Forget it.
Even international friendlies and some qualifiers are seen as fluff that takes time away from thinking about their favorite club and who they're going to buy in the next transfer window.
But when it comes to this tournament, Italian fans would do well to take notice. The Confederations Cup is generally considered a warmup for the World Cup's host country, but for the teams that take part in it, it can be a crucial aspect of preparation for the big dance next year.
Six of the eight teams that participated in the 2009 edition of the tournament—the only other time Italy has been a part of the Confed—played in the World Cup the next year. Half of those teams—Brazil, Spain and the United States—made the knockout rounds. Two others—South Africa and New Zealand—put in respectable performances before bowing out in the first round.
What ties those five together?
They all played relatively well in the Confederations Cup. The outlier in terms of form from the six that went on to South Africa 2010? The Azzurri, which had to come from behind to beat the U.S. before two dismal losses doomed them to an ugly group stage crash-out—exactly the result a year later.
Italy is guaranteed to play three more games in this tournament—one more group game, the semifinal and either the final or third-place game.
Italian fans should take note.
With only four qualifying games remaining, and the real possibility that the Azzurri will qualify with a game or two to spare, these competitive fixtures are going to tell us a lot about the Italian team going into Brazil 2014.
The players wearing the Italy shirt have worked hard to restore the honor of the Savoy blue since the disgrace of the 2010 World Cup. That smear on their reputation was started in some of the same stadia the year before with that dismal performance at the Confederations Cup.
Gigi Buffon and Co. deserve the support of their fans through the rest of the tournament. Otherwise, the hangover of a bad run-in in this tournament could carry all the way to next year, when it counts that much more.