Italy's national team take on Germany and Nigeria this week as they prepare for next summer's World Cup in Brazil.
One person who knows a thing or two about life on the international stage with the Azzurri is Gianfranco Zola, who has given his thoughts ahead of the games on Mario Balotelli and the impact Italy's manager Cesare Prandelli has made since he was named manager in 2010.
Zola represented his country at the 1994 World Cup in USA, but it would eventually end in tears for the diminutive frontman when he was sent off against Nigeria for an innocuous challenge on Augustine Eguavoen.
With the Nigeria game just around the corner, he also recalls how Italy's American dream became his very own nightmare.
Gianfranco, Italy face Nigeria at Craven Cottage on Monday. They’re a team you have somewhat painful memories of from USA ’94. Not long after you came on a substitute in that game, you were sent off for what seemed a fairly innocuous challenge on Augustine Eguavoen. What are your memories of the incident?
I was surprised. Shocked. I went from being a player who had received just a few yellow cards in his career to a red card in a World Cup. It was a devastating moment for me. It was my first game in the World Cup, so I was excited and thankful for the opportunity. Being sent off was a big blow. I think my response was good, though, as it taught me many things and I got stronger from the whole thing.
Your reaction in the immediate aftermath shows how upset you were. What was the response to your red card in Italy?
People couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t even a foul, let alone a red card. The referee got it wrong, but it was an honest mistake and I wasn’t the first or last player to be penalized that way. The reaction was the same back home—the people couldn’t believe everything that had happened. I look at it a different way, though. It became a good thing as the team reacted to that in the best possible way. We won the game [in the second round] and eventually made the World Cup Final. The players knew what had happened was unjust, but they pulled together and came back stronger. The team was different after that.
What is it about a perceived injustice that unites a football team as you say it did for Italy in 1994?
In that moment, the players pull together. They know they need to stick together and they start to work harder than ever before. Against Nigeria, it helped Italy get the result we were looking for. Sometimes incidents like that can help a team in that way. You see this happen all the time—things are not going in the right direction, then something such as my red card happens, which helps that. People come together.
If your sending off was a low point for you, there were still plenty of moments to savor from your international career. Italy are back in London for the Nigeria game, so it’s apt to mention your winner against England at Wembley in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup.
Absolutely. As I say, it was a bad moment for me, but after that I enjoyed a good spell with the national team. I gave good performances and did well, I think. Scoring against England at Wembley probably topped everything. It was very important for me. I was playing for Chelsea at the time, but I was representing my country and I wanted to win for my country. I think I took that goal very well. Without being disrespectful to English football and English supporters, it was very sweet.
It was an excellent period in your career. You had not long signed for Chelsea and were in the type of form that would eventually win you the Footballer of the Year award come the end of the season.
Things were going very well and scoring in that game against England helped my confidence even more. It was a great reward and I cherished it. I was delighted with that but also the way Chelsea fans reacted. They were disappointed to see England lose, of course, but they knew I was playing for my country. It wasn’t personal and I had a great response from them as they knew I always gave everything whenever I played for Chelsea.
Looking at the current Italy team, what do you make of the job Cesare Prandelli has done?
He’s doing a brilliant job. In my opinion, he has gone straight to the point. When he was appointed as manager, he said he wanted to go for quality in the team and he has done, getting results. Not many people were giving Italy much credit when he came in, but they are now and he is a big part of that. He’s been firm on his philosophy, even when he hasn’t got the results he was hoping for and I respect that in a manager.
What do you make of the squads he has been selecting?
He has been picking players of great quality and playing them in his team, too. Not many managers in Italy do this. They like to look at tactics and go for players who are still talented but do their job within that tactical framework. Prandelli said he was going to go for that quality and he has. In my opinion, the team needed something like that and he has been very successful. I think he is doing a very good job.
Do you think Prandelli’s approach has helped to change perceptions of Italian football? It’s an outdated stereotype, but the mere mention of Italy tends to stir the catenaccio ideal in many fans.
It’s on the way, yes. Prandelli has being doing well in that regard. Remember, you have to realize football is continuously changing—what is relevant today and is successful may not be next season or in years to come. Prandelli has understood that and he has tried to change some things. He has maintained the traditions of Italian football, but he has added some different things in there and the team is progressing because of that.
What are your thoughts on Mario Balotelli?
I think he’s the same as many players. He is very talented, very skilful and has the potential to become a truly great player. But he doesn’t always believe the way he behaves on the pitch and off it can help the way he plays. Nobody doubts him. I don’t doubt his quality either, but he needs to learn how to keep his character under control. I think he is getting better at doing that, though.
Do you think it’s a shame that when Balotelli is discussed, the focus is more on him as a character rather than a player? It can seem his life and events away from the pitch take over at times.
That’s part of the life. You are not only a footballer in the modern era, you are also something different. Believe it or not, the other parts affect footballers just as much as playing. I think it’s a very important thing for players to understand this and control it.
You say Balotelli is improving, becoming a more controlled character. How do you think Prandelli has impacted that? There have been some well-documented incidents in the past.
The manager has been excellent for the players, not just Balotelli. I have been very impressed with how he has dealt with the young players coming through in the national team. That’s an important quality to have.
This is an Italian team with plenty of young talent, but the likes of Andrea Pirlo remind us of the great players Italy have always produced down the years.
Pirlo is one of those players who, as they grow older, their football intelligence is such that they remain vitally important. It’s the same with [Francesco] Totti at Roma now. He is 37 years old, but he is still as good as ever. They are players who will never lose their quality and despite their age, they make the difference for the teams they play for.
Italy have qualified for Brazil 2014, with the match against Nigeria officially starting their preparations for the World Cup. The Azzurri have a tradition of peaking at major competitions, so how important are these matches?
That’s a very Italian quality—we always come together at the important moments and I think that’s something endearing about us. These games from now until the World Cup will be very important as the manger will need to look at options, to see different things to get ready for Brazil. As you say, that starts against Nigeria and I am looking forward to it very much.
This interview was taken from the official Italy vs. Nigeria programme, which also includes an exclusive interview with England manager Roy Hodgson as he remembers his time as Internazionale manager. To pre-order your copy, click here