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Italy's coach Marcello Lippi is taking the Confederations Cup very seriously. ((Lorenzo Galassi/Associated Press))

Italian soccer has taken it squarely on the chin in the past six months, as the state of the game in bella Italia has plunged into crisis.

In February Italy's national team was given a soccer lesson by Brazil, losing 2-0 in an exhibition game in which the South Americans dominated from the opening kickoff and completely outclassed the reigning world champions.

The next month, all four Serie A teams were eliminated in the second round of the UEFA Champions League, marking the first time in seven seasons that not a single Italian side had advanced to the quarter-finals.

And if all of that wasn't bad enough, Italy currently sits on a slender one-point lead over Ireland for first place in its World Cup qualifying group — a group that many pundits predicted they would dominate — after being unexpectedly held to a 1-1 draw at home by the Irish in April.

Lippi has some work to do

Normally, the FIFA Confederations Cup is a tournament that Italian soccer has ignored, but the Azzurri's participation in this month's competition in South Africa means it's a priority for national team coach Marcello Lippi, who is eager to whip his side into shape.

"Lippi is taking it very seriously," Paddy Agnew, a Rome-based journalist and noted Italian soccer expert, told CBCSports.ca.

"I recently spoke to him and he told me he's looking forward to it because he sees it as an absolute ideal opportunity to try out a number of players whom he still has questions about and wants to see more of."

Lippi has his work cut out for him, according to Agnew.

The Confederations Cup is "a chance for him to do some reconnaissance in South Africa a year before the 2010 World Cup," said Agnew, "so he sees it as a vital part of his preparations because one of the things Lippi would be the first to admit is that his team at the moment is a long way short of the competitive and combative team that won the World Cup in Germany."

It wasn't that long ago that Italian soccer was king and the envy of the world.

Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, Michel Platini and a host of other top players, both foreign and domestic, plied their trade in Serie A, while Italian clubs dominated European competitions, collecting trophies and silverware at will.

But those days are long gone, and Italian soccer is mired in a terrible slump, brought on by years of fiscal mismanagement at the club and league level. As a result, the game's best players have been flocking in droves to the English Premiership, which has knocked Serie A off its perch as the best league in the world.

"Serie A is going to have to work very hard to get back to anything resembling parity with the Premiership because it's a long way behind the Premiership at the moment, both on and off the field," warned Agnew.

The Confederations Cup could be the first step in Italy's potential soccer renaissance, as it offers the national team the opportunity to restore some pride in the Italian game ahead of next year's World Cup.

Restore some pride

"That's exactly the way Marcello Lippi looks at it," stated Agnew. "If you were to say to Lippi that Italian football has fallen way behind English football, he'll respond, 'no, it hasn't. Italian football may have fallen behind, but it's fallen behind Premiership football, not English football' because he believes there's nothing really English about the Premiership.

"In other words, the real expression of a country's national identity in football terms is its national team, and Italy's national team are the current world champions and Lippi expects his team to defend that title with pride and honour next year. In the mean time, I think he's looking to honour the country's tradition in South Africa at the Confederations Cup."