Is Lippi's Italy getting long in the tooth?
Italians call them "tormentoni," literally a pest or a nuisance that simply will not go away.
Between now and next May when he names his squad for the World Cup finals in South Africa, Italian coach Marcello Lippi is due to face plenty of them as 50 million self-appointed national team coaches offer him unasked for advice about his World Cup selections.
With five Serie A crowns, one Champions League title and a World Cup on his CV, you could argue that Lippi really needs no advice from anyone. Yet, that would be to overlook the fans. If Lippi needed reminding of just what and just who will dog his steps for the next six months, then it came just six minutes into Italy's largely uninspiring 0-0 friendly draw with Holland in Pescara on Nov. 14.
Calls for Cassano
Six minutes into the game and we had a pitch invasion. Except that this "invader" was neither a political activist nor a streaker. He wore a blue Italian shirt with the words "Cassano In Nazionale" (Cassano For Italy), written both front and back. Lest you do not know, Cassano is 27-year-old Sampdoria striker, Antonio Cassano, the outrageously talented "enfant terrible" of Italian football whom Lippi steadfastly refuses to pick for Italy.
Lest Lippi failed to get the point, sections of the crowd took to chanting the name of Cassano during the game. When this had happened in October during Italy's last meaningless World Cup qualifier (Italy had already won their group), a 3-2 home win over Cyprus in Parma, Lippi had famously lost his cool in an immediate post-match TV interview calling the fans' behaviour "shameful, really shameful."
That remark had prompted something of a diplomatic incident within the Italian Football Federation, so this time, in Pescara, Lippi played it very cool. Pitch invasion? Sorry, I had my glasses off and didn't see it. The crowd? They were perfect, I didn't hear any chants.*
The "tormentone" of Cassano (and others), however, is likely to accompany Lippi all the way to South Africa. The point is that, for all that Italy are the reigning World Champions, there are plenty of fans and commentators alike who argue that this current Italian side lacks that something special to make it a real quality team.
Then, too, there are many who argue that the current Italian squad contains too many older players, too many survivors from Germany 2006. It is an intriguing fact that three key figures in Lippi's current squad - 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro, 31-year-old goalkeeper Gigi Buffon and 32-year-old defender Gianluca Zambrotta - feature in the top six of the all-time rankings for Italian caps won. When this trio took to the field against Holland, they represented a staggering combined haul of 323 caps.
Yet, with the World Cup finals just seven months away, all the indications are that Lippi will rely heavily on the Germany 2006 squad. At this stage, one could point to at least ten such players likely to go to South Africa - Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Grosso, Camoranesi, Gattuso, De Rossi, Pirlo, Gilardino and Iaquinta.
The sight of so many Germany heroes, however, touches off a flashback in the minds of many Italians, who recall 1982 World Cup winning coach, Enzo Bearzot. When it came to the 1986 finals in Mexico, say the critics, Bearzot remained too loyal to the ageing players who had done the business for him in 1982. Critics fear that Lippi may be about to make the same mistake. They point to the embarrassing ease with which Brazil disposed of Italy (3-0) at the Confederations Cup in South Africa this summer as proof of their point.
Talking to this correspondent last February, Lippi indicated that he, for one, would not be repeating the Bearzot mistake. There will be, indeed there has to be, room for fresh blood, he said.
Yet, when it came to arguably Italy's most important qualifier, against Bulgaria in Turin in September, he reverted to methods (and players) tried and true. In a game which Italy badly wanted to win, in order to travel to Dublin for their next game against Ireland with a priceless four-point advantage, Lippi sent out a side which contained eight of the players who featured in the Berlin World Cup final win.
No room for Amauri or Totti
Significantly, too, AC Milan defender Zambrotta, on the eve of the friendly with Holland, seemed to suggest that the bus for South Africa was more or less full. Reflecting on two more of Lippi's "tormentoni," namely Juve's Brazilian striker Amauri and AS Roma talisman Francesco Totti, the Milan defender speculated that it would be "very hard" for either of them to win a late place in the team.
In October, AS Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi had said something similar when he suggested that Cassano might not necessarily make that much difference to Italy. The player-speak message from both men was clear - pull up the ladder, boys, the ship is full.
All of which would lead us to conclude that we are going to be seeing some very familiar Italian names in South Africa next summer.
Yet, the doubts remain. Does this Italy not badly need the sort of heavyweight attacking power provided by Amauri (just as soon as he becomes naturalized Italian next April)?
Even more importantly, does it not need the creative fantasy of a player like Totti or even Cassano?
The tormentoni will run and run.
About the Author
Paddy Agnew has lived and worked as a journalist in Rome since 1986. Since 1992, he has been Rome correspondent for the Irish Times, and for 15 years he worked as a soccer commentator for Italian state broadcaster RAI. He is a regular contributor to the BBC World Service radio, Irish broadcaster RTE, London-based TalkSport and many other radio stations, and he is the Italian correspondent for the monthly magazine, World Soccer. Agnew is also the author of "Forza Italia, A Journey In Search Of Italy and Its Football" (Ebury Press, 2006).