Defending champions Italy show their age
World Cup 2010: Cape Town
The Italian team coach, escorted by about a dozen police cars with sirens blaring, was in such a rush to leave Cape Town on Monday night that it forced our BBC minibus off the road as it hurtled past us at high speed.
Having witnessed them labour to a draw against Paraguay a couple of hours earlier, I'm hardly surprised Marcello Lippi and his players wanted to make a speedy exit and put a difficult evening behind them. They might have been in the fast lane on the road, but on the pitch they had been pretty pedestrian for most of the evening.
Yes, they survived atrocious weather, picked up a point, avoided an embarrassing defeat and should still qualify out of Group F with relative ease, but the defending champions did not begin this World Cup in a manner which suggests they are going to prove any of their detractors wrong - and there are plenty of those, especially back in their homeland.
If you think the English press is hard on our national side, spare a thought for Lippi. Despite being a World Cup-winning manager four years ago, he and his squad have been written off by their media this summer and are variously seen as being over the hill (half his players), out of form (the whole team) and devoid of ideas (Lippi himself).
The knives are likely to be out for the 62-year-old again in Tuesday's papers, judging from the conversation I had with some of the disgruntled Italian journalists present while we waited (and waited) for a lift to take us down from our seats to Lippi's post-game press conference.
Words failed one of them when I asked him about Lippi's inclusion of 36-year-old Fabio Cannavaro - victorious and inspirational skipper in 2006, but looking very much past his prime here when he allowed Antolin Alcaraz to leap above him and nod Paraguay ahead - but I still got the message loud and clear from his horrified facial expression and repeated shaking of his head.
Cannavaro looks on as goalscorer Alcaraz (centre) celebrates his goal with team-mate Valdez. Photo: AFP.
As well as defensive uncertainty, one other thing stood out to me as I shivered in the press box along with, among others, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger - Italy's shocking lack of creativity.
With Andrea Pirlo nursing a calf injury, only the energetic Simone Pepe seemed able to add any flair and finesse to a side whose only form of attack often seemed to be the footballing equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall. Until the final few minutes when Paraguay tired, all of Italy's best chances came from set-pieces and even then they were obviously reliant on Justo Villar's horrific gaffe to gift them their only goal of the game.
As things stand, Lippi's strategy of relying upon veterans of his memorable triumph in Germany 2006 (five of the team which beat France in the final started against Paraguay, and there are four other survivors of the last World Cup in his squad this summer) undoubtedly looks misguided, despite him declaring himself "very satisfied with the performance". Maybe the torrential rain misted up his glasses at some point during the match because that didn't tally with the display I saw.
But Italy are clearly not the only side to have stumbled while taking their first steps in South Africa - only Germany have looked completely convincing so far - and past tournaments show they are a country that has a horrible habit of showing the irrelevance of early form when it comes to World Cup finals, even if I can't help thinking that the history books are where some of their side already belong.
From what I was told, though, many Italian fans have lost faith in Lippi, too, although I didn't get a chance to speak to any of them afterwards as planned - the torrential rain meant that by the time I left the stadium, the concourse was deserted save for a huge squadron of police (who had acted as stewards on the night after an impromptu strike from the regular staff).
I'd be interested to hear what any Azzurri supporters think but, for a more objective view of Italy's prospects, I grabbed Clarence Seedorf who, as well as being part of the furniture at the BBC studios in Cape Town where I am based, has been a regular fixture in Serie A for most of the past 15 years with Sampdoria and both Milan clubs. He knows most of the Italy players well and also understands the nation's psyche better than most.
He laughed off the pessimism surrounding Lippi and his side as "typical", adding: "Italian fans rarely say they are going to win anything because they are very superstitious - they definitely expect them to do well, even if they say otherwise!"
Seedorf also dismissed the view that too many of Lippi's key players are too old, although that's probably not surprising seeing as he is 34 himself and is reaping the benefits of AC Milan's famed Milan lab (known for extending the longevity of many a player's career) along with three of Italy's surviving stalwarts from 2006: Gianluca Zambrotta (33), Gennaro Gattuson (32) and the much-missed Pirlo (31).
"Age is not a factor," Seedorf told me. "Performances are all that matter. If Lippi had better younger players, then he would have picked them. If these are the best players, then so be it.
"I hear it all the time about how when players get past 30 that they are past it but it's not true. In general, people die 10 years later now because of better food, medicines and science. In sport, it is the same thing. If 32 was old for a footballer in the 1980s, then now it is normal to be playing at a high level when you are 35, especially if you have looked after yourself well.
"I look at the Italy squad and I see older players that might not be the same as they once were physically but who now have the mentality and the experience. To do well any team needs a mix of older and younger players and I think there is a good blend in the Italy squad. They are not playing well but I'm actually expecting them to click soon because they usually save their best form for major tournaments."
Whether that happens or not, nothing less than a win will do against outsiders New Zealand in Italy's next group game on Sunday and, although their other Group F opponents Slovakia might put up more of a fight, I'd still back Italy to get the results they need to reach the last 16.
It's after that that their progress looks less assured - especially if they go on to meet European champions Spain in their quarter-final as looks likely. To return to the story that I began this blog with, unless they make a huge improvement over the next couple of weeks, I can't help thinking that it won't be long until their journey comes to a juddering halt too.
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