Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Breathing space

Time for a calcio breather after the Confederations Cup and Under 21 Euro Championships. Much more bitterly disappointed about the latter than the former. We never looked all that enthusiastic for events in South Africa but the young boys were desperately hard done by.

What made it all the tougher to take, for me, was that Germany destroyed England in the final. We were so superior to the Germans in our clash that it was breathtaking. But the harsh rules of football state you have to stick the ball in the net. A lesson worth learning.

However, at least there is hope for the years to come. Judicious use of these young stars in the full international team should bear fruit. And who knows what judgements Serie A will bring in the year ahead?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Vai, Super Mario!

It seems ridiculous to say it about a boy yet to emerge from his teens but tonight is a big chance for Mario Balotelli to really come of age. Having seen red already in the European Under 21 championships, how sweet would it be to deliver the goals that send Italy into the final.

Let's be honest, the Azzurrini have sweated a fair bit to get where they are. But what they have shown is commitment and effort. Now they could do with the extra touch of class that the Inter hit man can bring. I don't feel any of Italy's big three - Giovinco, Balotelli and Acquafresca - has properly delivered yet.

Tonight could be that time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

From Calcio Italia

Italian fans have had to keep their heads down of late. It seems that our descent from World Champions to total laughing stock has been complete. Thank heavens for a little bit of sunshine from the normally chilly climes of Sweden.

It is not that the Under-21s have been brilliant at their European Championship, but simply that they have made progress. The Azzurrini remain unarguably the most successful national side at continental level. They may not win the tournament this year – it would be their sixth triumph – but at least they are in the hunt.

What has pleased me, personally, is not any individual performance but more the spirit of the team. They hung tough against Serbia for a point. Then they beat the host nation despite playing most of the match with 10 men. And finally they turned the ship around when they could easily have been sunk by Belarus.

It was supposed to be all about the attacking trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Robert Acquafresca and Mario Balotelli. Instead, I have been more impressed with the graft and organisation of the midfield and defence which has provided a vital platform. All credit to Gigi Casiraghi for that.

Of course, anything the young boys achieve cannot take away the pain of Confederations Cup humiliation, but it can send a powerful message to Marcello Lippi. Perhaps more of our youngsters are ready for battle than the wise old Coach suspected. Certainly, a few of them deserve their chance.

A World Cup winning side rarely shines four years on. Italy found out in 1986, so did France in 2002 and Brazil in 2006. It is vital, however, that you use that transitional period well. The Azzurrini have shown there is a crack of light appearing between the clouds. It is up to Lippi to find the way of capturing it – and using it to his best advantage.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Pablito to Peppino

It was a long, hot Italian summer when a frail-looking striker burst into life in Spain to capture the heart of a nation. About 27 years ago, give or take a few days, we were living through the birth of a legend. Paolo "Pablito" Rossi has never been forgotten.

It was a magical story, one of rebirth for a player who had been beaten down and banned from the game for his part in a match-rigging scandal. With six stunning goals he catapulted Italy to winning the World Cup for the first time in 44 years. The little lad from Tuscany done good.

Nearly three decades on the Azzurri have another Rossi. Another kid who looks like his strip is a bit too big and clings onto the ends of his sleeves to hold them in place. And he might just help us turn back the clock.

This time our good fortune comes from the USA, not Prato. Giuseppe "Peppino" Rossi transformed a drab Italian display against the States with a performance full of verve, guts and character. The way he won the ball, strode forward and thundered his first goal past Tim Howard was a breath of fresh air in a side which was starting to smell a bit stale.

Different times, different styles, of course. Pablito was more the goal poacher, the Pippo Inzaghi of his day with a splash of Alberto Gilardino. His namesake likes to buzz about behind the strikers like a firefly. It is a position which can - when used effectively - throw the opposition into chaos. Finding the space between defence and midfield is a special gift.

For us old timers, it is great to see the name back on the scoresheet for Italy. The very thought of John Motson shouting: "It's that man Rossi again!" as he bagged his third against Brazil back in 1982 still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. For one brief moment, on Monday night thanks to Giuseppe Rossi, I was 12 years old again.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Confederations crazy

There was a time when I could recite the fixture list of any major tournament without a moment's hesitation. It was just kind of programmed into my brain. With the passage of the years, however, I have to admit those days are gone.

If I am being kind to myself, I could say that the Confederations Cup is not worthy of my mental exercise. No matter who wins and in what manner, not many will remember it next year - never mind in 20 years time. But it bugs be that I can't get the date and time of the ties fixed in my head.

I'm beginning to think part of the problem might be that I am turning into my great uncle Dante. In the early days of satellite TV he used to come round to join us watching the great European nights. Sometimes there were eight or nine games involving Italian sides on a Wednesday evening - many of them taking place at the same time. As we hopped from channel to channel, the old boy from Bergamo lost track of what the results were. Now I am starting to know how he must have felt.

I blame UEFA for putting the Under 21 championship on at the same time. It is too easy to get your Azzurri and Azzurrini mixed up. I end up thinking Italy play Serbia and the Under 21s face the USA. So I've decided to write out my schedule for the next few days to help myself out. You know things are getting bad when you have to write yourself notes. (All times based on UK)

Monday, 15 June - Italy v USA (19.30)
Tuesday, 16 June - Italy U21 v Serbia U21 (19.45)
Thursday, 18 June - Italy v Egypt (19.30)
Friday, 19 June - Italy U21 v Sweden U21 (15.00)
Sunday, 21 June - Italy v Brazil (19.30 - Even I couldn't forget that one)
Tuesday, 23 June - Italy v Belarus (19.45)

Feeling better now that I have got that down in print somewhere...