Will Italy Regret Not Giving Verona Striker Luca Toni a World Cup Berth?

Paolo Bandini@@Paolo_BandiniSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 1, 2014

VERONA, ITALY - APRIL 27:  Luca Toni of Hellas Verona celebrates after scoring his opening goal  during the Serie A match between Hellas Verona FC and Calcio Catania at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on April 27, 2014 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images)
Dino Panato/Getty Images

Luca Toni is not going to the World Cup this summer. The Verona striker acknowledged as much on Sunday, reminding reporters that he had not even been invited to take part in Italy’s recent two-day training camp at Coverciano.

Given that 42 other players were called up, and that manager Cesare Prandelli can only include 23 in his final squad for the tournament, Toni knows that it would require something quite extraordinary for him to find a way in now (quotes in Italian).

Verona’s supporters, though, are not so easily dissuaded. They made their feelings clear throughout Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Catania, singing along to the tune of "Yellow Submarine":

We all want Luca Toni in the national team/

Toni in the national team/

Toni in the national team…

It is easy to see why. Toni scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday and appeared to grab his 20th, too. Sadly the latter strike was taken off him after the end of the game, when league officials ruled that it had deflected into the net off the body of Catania keeper Alberto Frison.

Regardless, Toni still finished the weekend joint-second in Serie A’s scoring charts­­. He has five more league goals this season than Mario Balotelli, the man who will almost certainly lead the line for Italy in Brazil. He has 16 more than Dani Osvaldo, who remains in contention for a place in Prandelli’s squad despite an anonymous season with Southampton and Juventus

Nor should Toni’s impact for Verona be measured only in goals. He has contributed seven assists for this season—the second-most of any player on the team. As the central striker in Andrea Mandorlini’s 4-3-3, Toni serves as the focal point for most of Verona’s attacks—winning headers, knocking the ball down for his team-mates or holding it up to bring them into play.

It is far more than anyone expected from Toni when he joined Verona as a free agent last summer. Already 36 years old by that stage, he had not scored more than eight goals in a season since his last full campaign with Bayern Munich—all the way back in 2008-09. Many people were surprised that he had not retired following a modest season-and-a-half with Fiorentina

Asked on multiple occasions this season what made him keep coming back, Toni’s answer could almost always be boiled down to one word: “fun.” He said as much for the first time back in August, when he told Gazzetta dello Sport (via The Guardianthat: “Running after a football, scoring goals, celebrating and suffering in a stadium has been my whole life. As long as I am enjoying myself I will continue to do it.” 

Only once had he seriously considered giving up the game, back in the summer of 2012. That was when he, and his long-term partner Marta, suffered the agony of losing their first child, who arrived into the world stillborn. Playing for Al-Nasr in Dubai at the time, Toni quit the club to give himself the room to grieve.

At first he did not know if he would ever come back to the game, but Marta convinced him that he must. "She was stronger than me," Toni would later confess to the German newspaper Bild (via ESPNFC).  

Verona remain grateful for Marta’s intervention. Without Toni, whose goals represent more than one-third of their total output, this first season back in the top-flight could easily have gone very differently. They were expected to spend the year scrapping against relegation. Instead, with three games left to go, they find themselves seventh, still with a realistic shot at the Europa League place.

If he can be so effective for his club side, then why not for the national team? Toni long ago lost what little pace he had, but his sense of position and timing remain undiminished. He remains exceptional in the air, both at winning headers and knowing how and where to direct them. In that department, at least, no other Italian striker comes close. 

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 11:  Head coach Italy Cesare Prandelli reacts during Italy Training Camp - Day 2 at Acqua Acetosa on March 11, 2014 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Prandelli, though, has gone in a different direction. No one should really be surprised. Ever since taking the job in 2010, the manager has sought to build a forward-facing Italy, bringing through young players and constantly renewing his squad. It would have been a bizarre move, four years into his project, to suddenly reverse field and call up a veteran who has not played for the national team since 2009.   

The truth is that Toni himself is at peace with the situation. For months he has been reiterating the line that, when it comes to the World Cup, whatever will be, will be. If Prandelli does not need him in Brazil, then he will happily enjoy a summer holiday with his family instead (video in Italian).

After the heartache of that first stillbirth, he and Marta were able to conceive a second time, and they now have a happy and healthy daughter together named Bianca—born last June. The opportunity to spend time together after a long season will be a welcome one indeed. 

Perhaps, Toni might even relish the chance simply to take a break. His contract at Verona expires this summer, but club president Maurizio Setti has already made it clear that he will be offered a new one (quotes in Italian on club website). 

One assumes that Toni will accept. On the eve of this season, he confessed that he would like to carry on long enough to score his 300th career goal. He was already on 271 at the time, but given his diminished scoring rate over the previous few seasons, it seemed like a distant goal.

Now he stands within 10 of that target and looks destined to achieve it sooner rather than later. Even if not this summer in Brazil.