Four years ago, Italy entered the World Cup amid low
expectations and a scandal before emerging with its fourth
championship. Expectations for the team heading into South Africa
may be even lower.
The most decorated European squad in the World Cup begins its
quest to retain the title when it faces Paraguay in Cape Town on
Usually seen as a favorite to win any tournament, Italy was not
in that position in 2006 as a match-fixing scandal in its domestic
league had come to light. However, the controversy and criticism
appeared to unite the team as it went on to win the World Cup by
beating France on penalties.
“Whenever a World Cup comes around everyone wants to get in
their say,” said coach Marcello Lippi, who guided Italy in 2006.
“Last time, everyone joined in as we moved along, but this time
we’re not going to allow anyone to jump on the bandwagon.”
The lack of faith in Italy’s chances this time might stem from a
difficult qualifying road. Ranked fifth by FIFA, Italy went 7-0-3,
but stumbled in two games against Cyprus and another against
Montenegro. It needed a last-minute goal from Alberto Gilardino to
secure a 2-all tie with Ireland in the second-to-last qualifier to
clinch a trip to South Africa.
“We lost a bit of that aura, but we’re working hard to regain
it,” said defender Fabio Cannavaro, who will captain the team for a
second World Cup. “A compact defense has always been the basis of
Strong play from goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and the
Cannavaro-led defense might be essential again, as Italy allowed
only two goals in 2006 – an own goal and a penalty kick.
While Cannavaro, 36, is considered to be on the downside of his
career, Lippi disagrees with the notion that his team is “old” with
an average age of 28 years, 9 months.
“Yes, we have old players, but with age comes charisma and the
experience of playing in big games. I think we have the right mix
of young and old players,” Lippi said. “We have nine players from
2006. I’ve never seen any team that wins the World Cup show up four
years later with 23 new players.”
Italy can take solace in that fact that it’s in perhaps the most
favorable group, which includes 34th-ranked Slovakia and No. 78 New
Paraguay, ranked 31st, is making a fourth consecutive appearance
at the World Cup. It was eliminated in the group phase in 2006.
La Albirroja showed its own defensive acumen in qualifying,
allowing 16 goals in 18 games as it finished tied with Chile for
second in the standings, one point behind Brazil.
Paraguay is led offensively by emerging star Lucas Barrios, who
scored three goals in three games for the national team after
leading Borussia Dortmund with 19, third most in the German
Bundesliga this season.
The only World Cup meeting between the teams was won by Italy in