What Do Italy Need to Change to Have a Successful World Cup?

Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

Italy forward Mario Balotelli, right,  celebrates with his teammatePablo Osvaldo after scoring during the 2014 World Cup Group B qualifying soccer match between Italy and Czech Republic at the Juventus stadium in Turin, Italy, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Now there is little time for Cesare Prandelli to get anything wrong. He has three games left for Italy to prepare itself for the World Cup.

He is still enforcing his own rules set years ago, banning Daniele De Rossi from playing for the Azzurri in the friendly against Spain on Wednesday after the midfielder was caught punching Mauro Icardi of Inter. Prandelli dropped De Rossi twice before. “I don’t want any crazy things happening in Brazil,” the manager told reporters (h/t Football Italia) on Monday, “so this is a warning.”

At least Prandelli is a man of principles. He has run a meritocracy, and usually players deserving of a call-up do indeed get it—especially if they are younger. (Mattia Perin and Ciro Immobile both earned a place in the squad for the first time this week.) Prandelli doesn’t seem to care where his players were born. He has played Pablo Osvaldo and Thiago Motta—both from South America—and now most recently Prandelli has selected defender Gabriel Paletta, Argentinean by birth.

The older generation is still waiting for an answer. Two World Cup winners have defied their age, playing like they did years ago. Maybe it is not so surprising that Francesco Totti can still flick the ball, score from anywhere and thread a perfect pass standing almost still. The speed is gone. And that’s OK.

Marco Vasini/Associated Press

He wasn’t really a central component to Italy when they won the World Cup in 2006, and this time he really doesn’t have to be. His line of production has buckled of late, injuries bothering the 37-year-old. “Had he been Brazilian then he would have a great chance of being called up by me,” Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari told reporters (h/t Football Italia) in November, “but he is lucky enough to be eligible for a fantastic and spectacular national side.”

There’s no question why Scorali wants to try players like Fred and Robinho, why he is so loyal to Julio Cesar, the goalkeeper isolated at QPR and now with Toronto FC. Since Scolari returned to coach the national team, Kaka and Ronaldinho have both played for Brazil. Experience is a priority. The burden is too great to shoulder between a group of young players. That is why Scolari hired a psychologist.

The question is whether Totti could handle the pressure himself. At his age, Totti could function as a role player, a substitute as he was when he scored the penalty that beat Australia in Germany. But Totti always puts himself out there. Italian TV aired all four-and-a-half hours of his wedding.

Criticism is his companion. Fabio Cannavaro, his teammate for that World Cup, said, via ESPNFC: “No, it's too great a responsibility and if things don't go well, everybody would blame him. It could be a problem for Francesco.”

Fitness is another thing. Temperatures in Brazil vary, and Italy will play England in the Amazon. “From a coach's point of view, I would take him,” Gennaro Gattuso told Radio Radio (h/t ESPNFC) in December, “but I don't think it's viable because he'd struggle physically to cope with a tournament like the one in Brazil.”

Paolo Giovannini/Associated Press

Then there is Luca Toni, and he seems like a sentimental choice but probably an even wiser one than Totti.

Toni is 36, and he is the third-highest scorer in Serie A, with 13 goals and seven assists. When he scored against Juventus, and lead a charge to tie the game, Toni equaled Oliver Bierhoff with 44 headers, the most in Serie A history. Not since he played with Bayern Munich in 2008-09 has he scored in double digits. This is not so sudden anymore. Toni is workmanlike and aware of the space around him.

He is serviceable mainly inside the box—very few of his goals come outside—but it is the effect he could have on the strikers and centre-forwards who will actually start the games for Italy that is most valuable. He has scored in a quarter-final of a major tournament. He has played in every professional division in Italy. If not for the insurance of an extra goal or two, Toni provides necessary leadership.

Luca Toni still a better option for Italy than Immobile, Gilardino, Matri, Quagliarella and probably Osvaldo too. Get him on that plane!

— Sam Lewis (@SamCalcio) February 9, 2014

And scoring is too much of a variable for Italy. Last year, the Azzurri had 18 different goal-scorers in friendlies and competitive matches, most of them midfielders, wingers and defenders.

Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi hardly played. They are the hopes of the country. Again on Wednesday, neither will play, both of them injured. Balotelli tweeted, via ESPNFC: “Unfortunately up until now we've played little together for La Nazionale but I hope that the right time arrives soon.”

The frustrating thing is that they can perform together. Balotelli slipped a great pass to Rossi before he chipped the goalkeeper in a thrilling friendly against Nigeria in London. They know each other well. “We’re always sitting in the back of the bus together,” Rossi told the journalist Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated. “We’re sharing music and stuff. We like to chill and talk.”

Either Balotelli was out serving a ban for his behaviour or Rossi was injured. Time on the field is so rare and special to them. They compliment each other. “In my mind Balotelli is a centre-forward, while Rossi is someone who can play behind him, but there's no reason why they can't switch positions,” Prandelli told reporters (via Reuters) in November. “They’re the type of striker that is in vogue in modern football: they don't offer the opposition any points of reference.”

Italy is not so much defence as it is offence. They have to score to win. The Azzurri have tied the past four matches, and they couldn’t beat Haiti. When they do open up, they concede goals, as they did against Japan in the Confederations Cup. They need a complete performance.