13 September ~ Watching Italy labour to two 1-0 wins against the might of the Faroe Islands and Slovenia last week was a painful but revealing experience. It was painful because against opponents whom it would be charitable to describe as “modest”, Italy, one of the world's leading football nations, produced displays that were at best on a par with a team from the lower half of the Championship. Against the Faroes, they could have had four in the first ten minutes and looked sure to net a hatful, but once Antonio Cassano’s scrambled (and almost certainly offside) goal put them ahead, they stopped playing.

The Faroes, who at the start would have settled for a one-goal defeat, were probably a little disappointed not to get a point after hitting the post in the first half and the bar in the second.

The Slovenia game, played before a largely silent crowd of just 18,000 in Florence, seemed to be heading for a 0-0 draw until a lucky break – a miscued clearance by a Slovenia defender – allowed Giampaolo Pazzini to score with six minutes left. And so Italy qualified for Euro 2012 with two games to spare and after conceding just one goal in eight matches. This was hailed by the commentators as something of a triumph for coach Cesare Prandelli. They seemed to forget that the seven wins were against Estonia, the Faroes, Slovenia (all beaten twice) and Serbia, a game won 3-0 without even playing due to crowd trouble.

The games were revealing because they laid bare for all to see how empty the Italian cupboard is at the moment. Probably only Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo would challenge for a place in the Italy side of ten years ago. And even the 2006 World Cup win was achieved by a team that was no more than workmanlike. The sad truth is that Italy is currently not producing players even remotely approaching top quality. Cassano, for example, who everybody wanted in the 2010 World Cup, showed why Marcello Lippi was probably correct not to take him. He looks good at times but the end product is too often not there. And a single offside goal against the Faroes doesn’t change that.

Two factors that explain why the production line of talent has dried up are the huge influx of foreign players, and the conservatism of Italian coaches when it comes to giving youth its head. In Italy they would probably have said Lionel Messi was too young at 17 to be thrown into Serie A. Many players in their late teens who should be gaining experience in Serie A find themselves loaned out to clubs in the lower divisions where they probably play more, but don’t develop because they are up against inferior opposition.

The TV pundits covering the two games tried to convince us that something good came out of them, as though keeping a clean sheet against the Faroes and Slovenia is some sort of an achievement. They also blamed the rain in the Faroes, or the fact that the players’ strike had left the team short of match practice – as if all those club friendlies and summer tournaments don’t count. In any case, no such excuses were trotted out when Spain were beaten, albeit luckily, in an August friendly.

One can only assume that Italy’s players see these matches as a chore to be got through, if possible without being injured before next week’s crunch games in the Champions League. So here’s a suggestion. Against the real minnows, they should select a team exclusively from clubs not involved in Europe. They would surely try harder, they would almost certainly win much more convincingly, they might even feel that playing for their country is an honour. And it would send a message to the others that performances like those we’ve just seen are just not good enough and that their places are not guaranteed. Holland showed how it should be done with their 11-0 win over San Marino. Richard Mason

Comments (4)
Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-09-13 13:38:58

Two many foreigners. No young players coming through. Italy and England - two peas in a pod, possibly?

One thing I would take issue with, though: are Italian coaches really reluctant to give the kids a chance, do you think? The same criticism is often levelled at our coaches over here, but my feeling is that they would pick them if they felt they could. The sad fact is: most kids don't have the maturity to hack it with the grown-ups. There are the odd exceptions - in our own league Rooney and Willshere were thrown in at the deep end at 16 or 17 and flourished - but on the whole, the kids just aren't ready for it. And I don't point the finger of blame at Premier League coaches or Serie A coaches for that. It seems to me that the problem is down in the academies.

I don't know how it works in Italy, but over here academy football is not sufficiently competitive for the genuinely gifted young footballer, and it offers no sort of grounding for the real world. Surely the best preparation for competitive adult football is... competitive adult football. Not kids games, with other kids. These days, most sixteen year olds are big enough to be playing against grown men, at the appropriate level obviously. Once they've turned sixteen, the top kids should not exclusively be playing for youth teams against other youth teams, with maybe the odd reserve game thrown in, plus a run-out in an early round of the Carling Cup. These games are little more than glorified friendlies. That's not real football, is it? And yet, kids over here are still playing in academies until they are EIGHTEEN. That is far too late.

All the pious hand-wringing and self-congratulation that we hear for academy football is totally un-justified. Their record for grooming the footballers of tomorrow is appalling, and it is quite evident that a year out on loan at Bolton or Bury is far better preparation for life as a professional footballer than a year poncing around in an academy.

Football academies? Vastly over-rated, if you ask me. OK for teaching under-12's how to dribble round cones, but producing the finished article? No chance.

(Just my opinion of course...)

Comment by jameswba 2011-09-13 14:25:11

What strikes me is that last week Germany qualified for Euro 2012 and we had an article telling us how good they are. Italy have also qualified, yet here we have a piece telling us how bad they are. The fact is that, like Germany and unlike, say, Portugal and Russia, Italy will definitely be in Poland and Ukraine. Doesn't matter that they haven't put double figures past the Faroes, or satisfied the self-appointed footballing purists. They're through. End of story.

There's another reading of each of those opponents too. Slovenia and Estonia, rather like Slovakia and Latvia, have an image problem. They're small, ex-communist, and were once part of a larger union or federation. That doesn't necessarily mean they're bad at football, though. Estonia's results have shown notable improvement recently, while Slovenia were at the World Cup and, with a bit more self-belief, could have qualified for the last 16. And the Faroe Islands, like Andorra, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg (the latter two have 4 points each in their groups) are capable of making life very difficult for teams with qualification ambitions. As for Serbia, well, if an element of their fans is so thuggish that they cause a game to be abandoned, that's their problem, not Italy's.

I'm sure there are valid points in this article about Italy's development of young players but I'm not convinced the way they've qualified for Euro 2012 should be seen as that big a problem.

Comment by Moonlight shadow 2011-09-13 18:26:51

Has Richard been dropped from England circa 1950 straight into Italy for feeling the need to write an article about Italy not doing much else than winning games with the less effort (thus not wasting any energies playing flat-track bullies like the Dutch...) possible and doing so in perfunctory style?

Italy has won 4 WC, Holland none...that's the stat you should bare in mind, not what the scoreline was in qualifiers that nobody will remember before long...

Comment by FCKarl 2011-09-17 00:33:29

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Mason's point of view in this article on the woefully boring, uninspiring, lethargic Calcio that the Azzuri are "showcasing?" And this is not new; we've seen this since their win over Germany in World Cup 2006's semi final (and only the 30 minutes of extra time was worth viewing in that match).

Or will anyone here in some future day pull out a DVD of that 'brilliant' (yes, heavy sarcasm) final win against France in Berlin?

It was no different in Euro - Switzerland & Austria - 2008. I remember well setting aside an entire half day to prepare for what local French people told me would be an epic clash when France and Italia met again. Snore. People at that party literally fell asleep.

Italy won (barely). But can anyone name just one pertinent fact about that match? Can anyone name just 4 players who started for Italia that day?

No. Because they were not memorable. The Azzuri haven't been memorable or noteworthy for a long, long time.

Cannot blame anyone for snoozing; sleeping is much more worthwhile than watching an anemic Squadra A. that limps through a pitifully easy qualifying Group C for Euro 2012.

As for comparing them to Germany? There is no comparison! Watch the élan and esprit as Germany have recently demolished Turkey, Azerbaischan, and Austria in Euro qualifying. Watch and be electrified as Germany pushes itself hard in the first half hour against Brazil in a recent friendly in Stuttgart.

That's football worth watching. And from a coaching standpoint, worth passing on to youngsters to emulate.

Italia rolls out young men. Buffon and Pirlo should long be relegated to cameo appearances at best; they are well over the hill and long in the tooth. Germany meanwhile? Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and captain Phillip Lahm all look aged (at only 27 years!) compared with young, exciting firebrands like Oezil, Khediera, Traesch, Kroos, Aogo, Hoewedes, Hummels, Badstuber, Goetze, Schuerrle, T. Mueller, and GK Neuer.

Yes, a comparison of Germany and Italy is a legitimate one to make as they are historically at the top of the national sides throughout the last 50 years. In Euro qualifying so far, Germany has outscored 28:5 (with 24 points -- perfect for 8 matches) versus 14:1 (with 22 points from 8 matches -- I gave Italia the 'doubt' for the match vs. Serbia; I 'gave' them 2 goals)

So who do you want to watch? Which national side (and its players) are giving their all? Only 18,000 watching live in Florence's stadio says it all; the German national team matches are sell-outs for 60,000 arenas months in advance.

The present-day Azzuri are not worth watching. If we were "back in the day" of only 8 finalists at a Euro competition (pre England hosting in 1996), Italy would not be booking a place in the final Euro competition 8.

Italy is failing at producing continental-class players. As a nation that should be (still is?) passionate about this sport, those managing the top levels of the Italian game deserve every bit of derision that can be heaped upon them.

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