The last hurrah for Italy?
Fewer than 50 fans turned up at Milan's Malpensa airport the other night to see reigning World Champions Italy off to South Africa on their attempt to defend the title they won in Germany four years ago.
To say that the national mood surrounding Marcello Lippi's team is one of skeptical apprehension is to say the least.
I have said it before but it is worth repeating, the current mood reminds me of the summer of 1986 when Enzo Bearzot's 1982 winners went to Mexico with almost no Italians believing that they could pull off back-to-back World Cups.
This time, it is much the same with many critics and fans alike expecting Italy to get no further than the quarter-finals where, if form lines are respected, they could be expected to make a dignified exit at the hands of the reigning European Champions, Spain.
At that point, the Azzurri could travel home, hardly in glory but certainly with nationalhonour saved and still intact.
The under-whelming mood of eager national non-anticipation prompts some curious reflections.
For a start, all the most senior squad members point out that Italy nearly always start out for a World Cup or a European Championship tournament against a background of cynical pessimism. Strictly speaking, this is not true of every tournament but it certainly was true of Euro 2000 and the Germany 2006 World Cup and we all know how those two finished.
Likewise, coach Lippi and many of his senior players point out cheerfully that the current climate around the national team is positively sunny by comparison with the black storm clouds of match fixing corruption which hung over Italy's head four years ago. Even recent polemics from diverse government ministers do not seem to have much upset the squad.
Simplification Minister (I kid you not, that is his title) Roberto Calderoli argued the other day that in these times of economic crisis, the Italian footballers should set an example and take a cut in their South Africa bonus pay. He furthermore called on Serie A clubs to implement salary cuts next season. Needless to say, the response from the World Cup squad was less than enthusiastic with players such as captain Fabio Cannavaro arguing that every four years, the politicians simply try to climb onto a national team bandwagon.
Comments like that of Calderoli and criticism about an alleged joke that Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio made during the singing of the national anthem prior to Italy's 1-1 friendly draw with Switzerland in Geneva the other night prompted Cannavaro to suggest that Italy, at times, really is a "ridiculous" country. Which in turn raised the heckles of Minister of Defence, Ignazio La Russa, who complained that the Italian captain should not denigrate his homeland. And so, on we go.
But, in real football terms, where are we with Italy? Leaving aside the obvious back-to-back World Cup hoodoo, there are other worrying considerations. For a start, this is a squad in which the two most talented and creative playmakers, namely Milan's Andrea Pirlo and Juve's Mauro Camoranesi, go into the tournament with a major injury worry over their heads.
Pirlo has for long been the midfield metronome and guiding light that plots the way forward for this team. If he is not playing well, then Italy struggle. If he is not playing at all, as in Italy's two opening games against Paraguay and New Zealand (he is out of both games because of a right leg muscle pull but hopes to be ready for the third game against Slovenia), how will the Azzurri fare?
Against such relatively un-intimidating first-round fare, Camoranesi could normally have been expected to step into the playmaking breach. Yet such has been the poor form shown by Camoranesi in this injury interrupted season that, even as we write, there are those who believe that Camoranesi may be dropped, being replaced perhaps by Cagliari's Andrea Cossu, Italy's 24th player who has gone along as cover should Pirlo not make it.
In the meantime, the playmaking onus is likely to be shifted onto the shoulders of Fiorentina's Riccardo Montolivo, at least in the opening two games.
If there are many reasons for fearing that this Italy will be strong on defensive organization and midfield battling but weak when it comes to real "quality" football moving forward, one thing does seem fairly clear. There will be no debacle, no Koreas (North '66 or South '02).
Quite simply, Lippi is too accomplished and experienced a coach. We have long suspected that he really does not expect to win consecutive World Cups but also that he is totally determined to go down with dignity, avoiding any embarrassment.
In that context, it has been intriguing to watch the extent to which he has wrong footed his critics (present writer included), creating a squad that does indeed contain nine survivors from Germany '06 but in which relatively inexperienced players such as Criscito, Bocchetti, Bonucci, Marchisio, Montolivo and Pazzini may yet make it into the first team. This could be a World Cup which some of the '06 Dad's Army watch from the privileged vantage point of the substitutes' bench.
A final thought - in the best Italian tradition, no team will be better fed than Italy in South Africa. The Italian "expedition" reportedly set off from Milan with 250 kilos of pasta, 200 kilos of parmigiano cheese, 400 kilos of skinned tomatoes, 200 kilos of best olive oil, 100 kilos of salamis and 60 kilos of coffee, all to be lovingly prepared by the squad's own two specialist cooks. Whatever else happens out there in South Africa, sounds like they are going to eat well.
That is it from me, folks. Enjoy the World Cup as indeed I hope you have enjoyed my modest offerings over the last six months. Arrivederci e tanti auguri - goodbye and best wishes.
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).