14 June ~ If Italy's World Cup campaign doesn't get off to a flying start against Paraguay tonight, it won't be because the world champions have been dragged down by the weight of expectations. The nation is braced for failure after an uninspiring qualifying campaign, dreary performances in warmers and the loss of their main creative force, Andrea Pirlo, at least for the first two games with a calf problem. The core of the team are over-30s from the 2006 squad, several clearly past their best, including Gianluca Zambrotta and captain Fabio Cannavaro, who will play in Dubai for Al-Ahli next season after Juventus let the centre-back go.
Marcello Lippi is taking flak for standing by them even though the fact they have not been relieved of their places by younger players may say more about the state of Italian football – European champions Inter's treble-winning side had no home-grown regular starters – than it does about the boss's judgement.
Indeed, Lippi seems miffed the nation does not have more faith in their World Cup-winning manager after also coming under constant fire for predictably overlooking temperamental talents Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. But he and his men are at least trying to put the scepticism to good use, channelling it to create the siege mentality that worked so well at Germany 2006 amid the turmoil of the calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Lippi demonstrated this by saying that if his boys in blue go all the way this time, unlike four years ago he won't let the critics "jump on the bandwagon".
The players also came out swinging when the inevitable pre-tournament polemic bubbled up and they showed some neat PR skills in the process. When a minister from the Northern League party suggested they be deprived any of bonuses earned in South Africa given the economic climate, the players responded by vowing to donate a share of any extra money to a fund for events marking the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification next year. The move was a masterstroke as, while being beyond reproach, it landed a sweet blow against the Northern League, who are certainly no great advocates of Italian unity. "We are here to unite the country, not to divide it," said Cannavaro, rubbing it in. No doubt it's all good bonding.
And it may go a long way for a team with no pretensions of having to win in style, who have landed in an easy group and have shown so often they can shut out more talented opponents before slaying them on the counter. "You have to know your limits," added Cannavaro. "We'll never play like Brazil or Spain, but they'll never defend like us." Paul Virgo
Read the WSC World Cup preview for Italy