Matt Barker reports on why Italy's youngsters are so good

Italy’s Under-21s – the Azzurrini – have dominated the junior-level European Championship since winning their first title in 1992. Under Cesare Maldini’s ten-year stewardship, a succession of sides won three titles on the trot (in total the Italians have triumphed in five of the last seven tournaments), blooding an impressive turnover of players, from Demetrio Albertini and Francesco Toldo, to Fabio Cannavaro and Francesco Totti.

Drilled in the country’s primavera (spring) system, young players quickly get used to a competitive environment, complete with il ritiro. Set midway between a reserve team and a youth side (the upper-age limit is 20, with two older players allowed to take part in games as well), the primavera league is split regionally and, certainly compared with reserve football here, gets a decent amount of media coverage (Sky Italia broadcast live games on a Sunday and have just announced plans for a Friday night show). There’s no culture of “the stiffs”, either; teams are viewed as an integral part of a club – Juventus officials have been pointing to their recent 5-1 tonking of Inter as proof positive that the Bianconeri’s rebirth is well underway.

All of which feeds through to the senior side and on into the international set-up. An Under-21 player will already be attuned to the idea that this is a serious business, as well as being keenly aware that such games are an opportunity to show what they’re made of. Players too old for the primavera, kicking their heels on the fringes of the swollen squads of the big northern teams or biding their time with a smaller club, see Under-21 appearances as a chance to showcase their potential. Aspiring Azzurri know that turning out for the giovanili is a real stepping stone up to a full honours and a decent chance to add some silverware to their CVs (though Antonio Cassano, naturally enough, bucked the trend, refusing to play for the then coach Claudio Gentile). Andrea Pirlo, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Simone Perrotta all used Azzurrini games to up their profiles, with Pirlo’s star turn during the 2000 tournament kick-starting a career that had seen him yo-yoing back and forth on loan while struggling to establish himself at Inter.

Things may, however, be changing. Current coach Pierluigi Casiraghi (who replaced a disgruntled Gentile in July, bringing in Gianfranco Zola as technical consultant) has to work with a new generation, some of whom no longer feel the need to prove their worth in Italy’s junior ranks. Eight of the starting XI that beat France in the 2006 World Cup final appeared regularly for the Under-21s. However, with Juventus out of the way, Milan floundering and Fiorentina still reeling from their points deduction, this season has seen less fashionable teams, the so-called provinciali, increasingly forcing their way into the upper echelons of Serie A. Clubs are also tending to streamline a little after the indulgences of the 1990s, with many opting to field a more homegrown base (something that’s serving Roma well this season).

This means players such as Giampaolo Pazzini at Fiorentina, or even Raffaele Palladino at Juventus, are enjoying a run of games and a level of media attention that would probably have been denied them ten years ago. Good news for senior boss Roberto Donadoni, who cherry-picked Roma’s Alberto Aquilani from the Under-21 squad for last month’s friendly against Turkey; not so good for Casiraghi.

Without Aquilani, and with the notable exception of Fiorentina’s Riccardo Montolivio, the current crop of players lack real star quality. Casiraghi has already had a little moan about player availability ahead of last month’s game against the Czechs and, with teams such as Palermo, Atalanta and Livorno all hoping to lay claim to a European place at the end of the season, there could be a reluctance to release players during a welcomingly long summer break. The thought that the conveyor belt of young talent that served the Italians so well for so long is stuttering to a halt is a fanciful one, but it could be that the new breed find the going a little tougher than normal next June in Holland.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month

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