Eyeing another bull run

It is very strange that Italy seems to do well at the World Cup whenever some scandal or turmoil at home precedes the big event.

Its four world titles illustrate this fact. The team’s first two wins (1934 and 1938) came during the tumultuous reign of then dictator Benito Mussolini, who was keen to parade the national team as the symbol of fascism. Forty-four years later, an inspired Italian side rode to the top following serious match-fixing charges levelled against its star striker Paolo Rossi. Rossi, in fact, was lucky to play the tournament, returning immediately after serving his two-year ban. He went on to win the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball as he led Italy to its most famous win.

The most recent triumph, in 2006, was not without its share of controversy either. The ‘Calciopoli’ scandal had just rocked the nation, as lurid details of rampant rigging of Serie A matches were revealed. Marco Materrazi, one of the members of the 2006 squad, revealed such distractions doesn’t necessarily deter the Italians. “In Italy, you are born with two dreams — to play in the World Cup, and to win the World Cup. All of us are driven by that passion. Whatever be the corruption or other issues that may arise, it does not distract us. The passion to win is stronger,” he said

Materrazi, who visited Bangalore to witness a soccer promotion tournament, added that his nation is poised to do well in 2014, despite the fact that European countries have not always been at their best when the World Cup is held in South America. The defender stayed clear of naming an issue which will trail the team this time around, but fans will hope that the racism mess in the country sparks another dream run.

The squad consists of footballers quite capable of achieving this end. While the 2006 Italian team was well served by veterans and a smattering of young stars, this team boasts of many young, exciting players, who have broken through the ranks in recent years. Mario Balotelli should shoulder the attacking responsibility, while Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini will lead a strong backline. The ageless goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo — both in the twilight of their international careers — will be desperate for a swansong. Coach Cesare Prandelli usually uses either the 4-3-3 or the 4-3-1-2, but Italy is generally known to play it safe in the initial stages of the tournament.

The results from this ‘safety-first’ approach can go both ways. In 2010, the side exited in the first round when it failed to win a single game — a shocking result when pegged in a group with Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. On the other hand, the same method proved to be a success at EURO 2012, when Italy went all the way to the final, after a stuttering start.

Placed in the “Group of Death” here — Uruguay, England and Costa Rica are the other teams — Italy needs to hit the ground running, as a false start could spell instant doom.

Buffon, however, thinks nothing of the task. “At this moment, Italy is the team which can think about going the furthest,” the veteran of 139 international caps recently said. Dogged by controversy or otherwise, this four-time champion can never be written off.