There has rarely existed so magnificent a soccer technician as Pirlo, who, at 34, continues to redefine the role of the central midfielder. Sitting behind the rest of the line, he controls the flow of traffic with passes both short, long, wide, through the back line and over the top of it. So long as he is pulling the strings, probably for the last time at a World Cup, opposing teams will have to be on their toes.
AFP/Getty ImagesALBERTO PIZZOLI
Italy are one of the giants of this tournament, having won it four times - most recently in 2006 - bested only by Brazil. They lifted the trophy the first two editions of it that they entered and have reached the semifinals six times in the last 11 World Cups. But that is not to say that Italy's success is predictable. In two of their last three appearances, they did not even make the quarterfinals, going out in the round of 16 in 2002 and the group stage in 2010.
AFP/Getty ImagesJOHN MACDOUGALL
It is probably not a position the Italians would like to be in, but it has come to this. These days, they are heavily reliant on the erratic genius of Mario Balotelli, the 23-year-old enfant terrible and star striker of Italian soccer. Born to Ghanaian parents, he was adopted by Italians at a young age and via a failed trial with Barcelona and stints with Inter Milan – where Jose Mourinho deemed him "uncoachable" – and Manchester City, wound up at his favorite club: AC Milan. But Balo is still as likely to lash out at an opponent or do something outright weird – like setting his own bathroom on fire with fireworks, or dress up as Santa Claus and hand out money in the streets in October, or get into a shoving match with his own coach – as he is to leverage his freakish combination of athleticism and skill to pivot the course of a game with a single flash of brilliance.
Getty ImagesClaudio Villa
How they got there
Since the other contenders in Group B - Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Armenia - pretty much canceled each other out by splitting their head-to-head games fairly evenly, Italy could simply rise above the fray and qualify on autopilot, going undefeated with six wins and four ties.
Getty ImagesValerio Pennicino
Difficult. To be assigned to a group that includes Uruguay and England is just plain bad luck. But that’s the fate that befell the Italians in Group D, which also contains Costa Rica. You would expect the Italians to advance, but they will have to work a lot harder for it than they would probably like to at this stage.
Getty ImagesBuda Mendes
Round of 16 prospects
Promising. Group D crosses over with Group C, which is comprised of Colombia, the Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan. There is not a team in that bunch that should be able to get in Italy's way to the quarterfinals.
Getty ImagesClaudio Villa
After flaming out spectacularly in 2010, Italy decided it was finally time to rebuild and stop relying so heavily on the generation that won in 2006. With exciting young forwards Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy stepping into bigger roles and a strong supporting cast emerging, the return was immediate. Italy reached the final of Euro 2012, losing to Spain, and fell to the same team on penalties in the semifinals of the 2013 Confederations Cup. This team is on the ascent but not quite there yet. A quarterfinals exit is most probable.