Italian football risks becoming stuck in a time warp, unwilling to drop veteran stars and unable to blood new talent.
By Paddy Agnew in Rome
What do the following have in common: keeper Vincenzo Fiorillo (Sampdoria), full-back Francesco Renzetti (Genoa), centre-half Giuseppe Bellusci (Catania), midfielders Fabio Sciacca (Catania) and Andrea Poli (Sampdoria), and strikers Abel Hernandez (Palermo), Guido Marilungo (Sampdoria) and Alberto Paloschi (Parma)?
Well, apart from being under-20, these multinational young talents will all struggle to hold down a permanent Serie A starting place next season.
The examples of players such as striker Mario Balotelli and defender Davide Santon (both of Inter), Brazilian star Pato (Milan) and Montenegrin midfielder Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina) are the exceptions that prove the rule. They too are under-20, but they are such prodigious talents that they have – albeit intermittently – already played their way into their first teams. For the rest, it may well be a long, difficult season.
Italy’s Under-21 coach, Pierluigi Casiraghi, says that Italian youngsters should follow the example of Manchester United’s Federico Macheda and move abroad, adding: “In theory, with the money crisis, there is more space for young players now compared to four or five years ago. Yet, in Serie A, results are everything. If you are not winning, then [the coach] can’t pick an Under-21 player.”
As we prepare for the curtain to lift on another new Serie A season – it starts on August 23 and ends on May 16, 2010 – it is tempting to conclude that the Italian football world is still facing many familiar problems, including not just lack of time and space for youngsters but also issues such as financial insolvency and potential fan violence. As we go into the season which will see the reigning world champions defend their title in South Africa, Italian football sometimes seems ever more fossilised.
It seems emblematic that two of the greatest talents in Italian football, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Inter and Kaka of Milan, have packed their bags and left for Spain. The days when Italy was the “Hollywood” of world football would seem to be long gone.
While Kaka and Ibrahimovic head off, Italian football risks becoming stuck in a time warp, renewing the contracts of golden oldies like Alessandro Del Piero, who is 35 in November, and Francesco Totti, 33 in September, but almost certainly not devoting enough time and energy to under-age players.
Nor do the results of last season paint a rosy picture. It was bad enough that not a single Italian club made the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but in some ways it was even more disappointing that Casiraghi’s useful Under-21 side went out to Germany at the semi-final stages of the European Championship in Sweden in June. After all, Italian teams have won five of the last 10 Under-21 titles.
Arguably worst of all, however, was Italy’s disappointing Confederations Cup showing in South Africa, where Marcello Lippi’s men struggled to beat USA 3-1 before losing 1-0 to Egypt and 3-0 to Brazil. Did that showing suggest that a number of Lippi’s World Cup winners are at the end of the line?
Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of an embarrassingly poor showing, Lippi seemed to suggest that he would ring the changes by way of preparation for next year’s World Cup finals. Conceding that Italy’s showing in the Confederations Cup represented just about the “lowest moment” in his three years as national team coach, he said: “We’ve taken a right box on the ears and now we’re on the plane home. But the rebuilding of the national team is ongoing. I never said that it was finished or that we would go to the World Cup finals with these players. We’ll start the changes shortly, beginning with those Under-21 players who have already proved themselves.”
In the all-important third game against Brazil, Italy started with eight players who featured in the Germany 2006 World Cup-winning squad. Yet Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Gattuso, Grosso, Pirlo, Camoranesi, Toni and Iaquinta all performed some way short of their 2006 best in a game in which the Brazilians seemed stronger, faster, fresher and fitter, not to mention more skilful.
Perhaps, after all, youth will in the end gets its head. Will there be space this winter in the national team for such as Santon and Balotelli? Will other younger players such as Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini, Udinese midfielder Gaetano D’Agostino, Roma midfielder Matteo Brighi, Roma defender Marco Motta, Juventus midfielder Paolo De Ceglie, Atalanta striker Robert Acquafresca and Juventus front man Sebastian Giovinco get an international run out?
Stand by for experiments in August when Italy meet Switzerland in a friendly, prior to September World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Bulgaria.
As if things were not bad enough in these cash-strapped times (when it is estimated that Italy’s Serie A clubs have collective debts approaching £2billion), there are good reasons to worry that the new season could be marked by fan problems.
In mid-July a court in Arezzo handed out a six-year sentence to Luigi Spaccarotella, the policeman who (accidentally or otherwise) shot and killed Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri at a motorway cafe in November 2007 during scuffles between Lazio and Juventus fans.
Many Lazio fans protested that the sentence was too lenient (given appeals and his service record, it is highly possible that Spaccarottella will not do a day in jail), prompting violent disturbances in Rome. Police and football authorities cannot rule out further violence.