Italy: Timeless FavoritesBy: Juan Mesa
HOW DID THEY GET HERE: The four-time world champions did not have to struggle much to finish first in Group B of the UEFA qualifiers. During the last four years, the team was praised for changing its traditional defensive style, the Catenaccio, for an offensive strategy based on possession. Coach Cesare Prandelli took the credit for the most radical tactical advance in Italian football in 60 years.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Italy’s midfield offers all the possibilities. Guided by maestro Andrea Pirlo, the Azzurri can hold rival attacks, control the ball, launch counterattacks, send accurate crosses and shoot from long distances. Forwards Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Ciro Immobile are certain to receive their share of goal opportunities.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS: The 23-player roster is filled with tempered spirits, with the exception of the rowdy Balotelli and Cassano. Both are talented but unreliable, as their short temper can leave the team with 10 men just a few minutes into the game. Keeping them in line is perhaps the biggest challenge for the coaching staff.
WORLD CUP CHANCES: Did anybody expect Italy to win in 1982 and 2006? No. And they can do it again if they find a source of collective inspiration. Playing against England, Uruguay and Costa Rica in Group D is the least concern in their minds, as Italians were born for tough battles on the pitch. Plus, they get to Brazil with a moral victory under their belt: after last year’s Confederations Cup, Italy asked FIFA to grant two time-outs at the midpoint of each half so players could rehydrate when playing under hot temperatures (like those they will have to stand in Brazil). The motion was accepted.
FUN FACT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Scandals have shaped two of the world championships the Italians have achieved. In 1982, coach Enzo Bearzot called striker Paolo Rossi to the team, just after his two-year punishment for match-fixing came to an end. Rossi ended up winning the Golden Boot with six goals, including a hat trick against favorites Brazil, and the opening goal in the 3-1 win over Germany in the final. And before the 2006 World Cup, Italian authorities discovered a network of illegal connections between team managers and referee organizations, which led to the relegation of league champions Juventus to Serie B. Pessimism dominated the Azzurri until they beat France in the penalty shoot-out of the final.
IF THEY WERE A SONG, IT WOULD BE: “Stranger Things Have Happened” by Foo Fighters.