In a few short weeks I will be sitting in Wellington’s cake tin watching the All Whites attempt to qualify for the World Cup. It will be a nail biting experience. If we win, it will be a celebration like no other – a feeling some people in other countries feel when their team actually manages the once in a generation feat of winning a World Cup. However for me, even though I desperately want New Zealand to qualify and I love the team dearly, my love for the national team of my country of birth is a sort of sibling love rather than a wild passionate romance. My true love will of course always be reserved for Italy, and last week came the moment I got to witness gli azzurri seal World Cup qualification. Funnily enough though, it barely moved me at all. Why? Because there are certain unbreakable rules when it comes to Italy, and one of them is that they always qualify for the World Cup. They’ve only missed one (1958) in the history of the sport, and with a seven point cushion at the top of their qualification group, they weren’t about to miss this one.
When it comes to rules though, the game that sealed Italy’s place in Brazil 2014, last week’s clash with the Czech Republic, demonstrated that while some of the many rules that govern our national team remain cast-iron and set in finest Roman marble, others have become somewhat flexible over the years…
For starters, if you were to ask a Martian to name one thing they know about Italian football, they’d probably simply say one word – Catenaccio. The ‘padlock’ style of football is what our teams have been infamous for over the past few decades. Billed as boring and negative, the system builds on a solid foundation of miserly defence. With the team bus parked in front of goal, a heavy reliance is placed on counterattacking, fluking something at the other end, winning a penalty or simply holding out for a penalty shootout. Under new coach Cesere Prendelli however, those days have well and truly gone. You can partly explain this by simply stating that he’s an attack minded coach, but the reality is, Serie A simply does not boast the sort of defenders that used to make it the best league in the world. Gone are the days of the Paolo Maldinis and Franco Baresis, now it’s the age of playing holding midfielder Daniele De Rossi as the central defender in a three man defence.
If you pressed that same Martian for a second thing they know about Italian football, chances are, particularly if he/she had had the misfortune to make first contact somewhere in the British Isles, their second word that springs to their mind might well be “diving”. Unlike with catenaccio, the unbreakable rule of Italy that will never change as long as I live is that English speaking commentators will always whinge about Italians getting the better of the refereeing decisions. Clearly they have never watched the Euro 2000 final or the 2002 World Cup round of 16…
Commentators hate us, and last week was no exception. Libor Kozák elbows Pasqual –commentator: “I don’t think it was deliberate”. The resulting yellow card is deemed “unlucky” as the Fiorentina player lies bleeding all over the pitch. Earlier in the game Bonucci had been accused of a supposed elbow that never connected. He was apparently “lucky to get away with it”. Balotelli trips over a player with no intent and we’re told he was “lucky not to get red” while Giaccerini gets his foot stomped on with the ball nowhere in sight and according to our ‘expert’ in residence there was “nothing wrong with the challenge”.
Also according to the pundits, all you need to know about Italy is Balotelli is a hot-head and Pirlo is class. It seems we don’t have/need any other players apart from those two. The truth is Pirlo is an incredibly important player. The elder statesman, he conducts the orchestra with guile and class. But all successful Italian teams have a clinical goal scorer. Rossi, Schillaci, Baggio, Vieri, Toni. Italian sides in the catenaccio mould historically only create so many chances, so you can’t afford to be wasteful. Now things have changed, we create lots of chances, and Super Mario can afford to be wasteful at times. We saw this three times against the Czech Republic in the first half. Open net – off the post. Gifted a 1v1 – hit straight to Petr Čech. Open net – over the bar. In previous years, any one of these chances missed would have been fatal to an Italian side. Not this Italy though, they came out after half time and took what was rightfully theirs thanks to Čech flapping at a corner to allow Chiellini a free header, and Balo earning (yes, EARNING) a penalty that he duly converted with his trademark jink.
Italy have never lost a World Cup Qualifyer on home soil. Only Spain and Brazil can boast the same record. We have played 44 World Cup qualification matches at home for 5 draws and 39 victories. That rule was never going to be broken last week. But two other important cast iron rules bit the dust in Turin. Before this game, Italy had never before qualified with 2 games or more to spare. The thing anyone who follows Italy learns through bitter experience is our teams win only when they have to, never before, and never in September. “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” is one of the mottos ingrained in the Italian psyche, and with Serie A starting later than other European leagues, the September International window always arrives when we are still very rusty. Not this squad though, not with Prendelli at the helm. This team looks ready to take on the world and win, no matter what is at stake and what time of year it is.
So what’s the moral of this story? Well, I think it’s that rules are made to be broken. It’s not a case of if, but when the day will come when each and every rule meets its maker. The only question is which one will be next? My money is well and truly on one rule that will definitely be toast by this time next year. Since 1970, Italy makes the final of the World Cup every 12 years and wins it every 24. 2014 will be a mere eight years since 2006…
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/