Stuttering campaign gives Italy splitting headache
They are ageing, clapped-out flops who were written off by their countrymen even before they set out for South Africa. Two dull draws later and desperately needing victory against Slovakia on Thursday, the Italian national team is doing its best to live up to its billing, sending out misfiring strikers and a bungling 36-year-old captain, Fabio Cannavaro, who is shredding the reputation he built four years ago when he steered the Azzurri to the World Cup.
Just another fallen European side? Not quite. Not only are Italians underwhelmed by the "Heroes of Berlin", but 10 million of them, if you believe government minister Umberto Bossi, are actually rooting for an entirely different national team, called Padania.
The gruff-voiced founder of the secessionist Northern League party a powerful backer of the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi coined the name Padania to describe Italy's northern regions and regularly gives rabble-rousing speeches calling for its independence. Bossi's nation of angry northerners already has a decent football team, which beat off competition from teams such as Kurdistan, Provence and Occitania in June to win the Viva World Cup for "national" sides overlooked by Fifa.
Flushed with success, Bossi took a cruel swipe at Cannavaro and co on Tuesday when he was asked about Italy's chances of beating Slovakia and squeezing through to the knockout phase of the other World Cup. "They will buy the game in any case," he growled. "Wait and see, next season there will be two or three Slovakian players joining Italian teams."
Coming from one of Italy's most powerful politicians, the statement drew howls of rage and even a polite rebuke from Giancarlo Abete, the head of Italy's football federation who said he had "overstepped the mark". It all prompted Bossi to make a rare U-turn, later saying: "I was joking, I hope Italy win the World Cup."
Far from Padania some Italians still fancied watching Italy, according to the Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne, who accused staff at a Fiat plant in Sicily of planning a strike to neatly coincide with Italy's opening game against Paraguay. Calling the accusation "shameful", union leaders announced they would respond to the insult by going back on strike.
In Turin thousands of viewers who got home in time for Italy's second outing against New Zealand on Sunday were furious when a suspected lightning strike at a power station blacked out the second half on the state network, RAI. Fortunately the national team chose the moment to have a blackout of its own, failing to overcome the Kiwis and prompting the RAI presenter to welcome back viewers after the power cut with the words "you didn't miss anything".
Marcello Lippi has put his trust in faithful, if ageing players such as Cannavaro, who fled Juventus to Real Madrid before drifting back to Turin and, despite doubts over his form, bounced back into the national side. By taking nine players over 30 to South Africa and leaving behind the prodigal, if wayward, talents Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, Lippi ensured his side resembled many Italian organisations risk-free zones where support for the boss goes a long way and young up-and-comers face years on the sidelines.
"You just can't cast doubt on someone like Cannavaro," said Gianluca Zambrotta after the captain made a mess of a free-kick allowing New Zealand to take the lead on Sunday.
By this time, however, readers of Gazzetta dello Sport were less inclined to stick up for the veterans, with 69% telling the paper Cannavaro should be dropped. "There's no panic, I'm 62. I've won lots of big competitions," Lippi said blithely after he was left facing a possible toss of a coin to go through should Italy draw today.
In the meantime, the Northern League has kept up the pressure by calling on the players to do their bit for the economic crisis by giving up their bonuses should they win the World Cup. After some debate in the changing room, the team responded by saying that if the League really wanted a charitable gesture, they could donate their bonuses to the foundation set up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the creation of the unified Italian state.
After so many dreadful performances, wrote Corriere della Sera, that was "the perfect counterattack".