Italy 2010 World Cup Preview: The Elderly Azzurri Head To South Africa Looking To Defend Their Title

The mere mention of Italy's national team often brings out the worst in fans of the beautiful game, resulting in a reaction full of anger and vitriol, set forth by the tendency of The Azzurri ("The Blue") to play the game, well, not-so-beautifully.

It is no secret, nor is it exaggeration, to make the claim that Italy flops (or dives). A lot. Even Urban Dictionary defines "Italian soccer" as "A special kind of soccer in which the most important skill is the ability to writhe on the field in fake agony until the ref yellow/red cards an opposing player." And then, of course, there was this "secret video" released just before the 2006 Cup, offering a look at Italy's training.

And there's probably even an argument to be made that Italy could not have won the 2006 World Cup without a key dive near the end of their match against Australia in the Round of 16. It's still a sensitive subject for the Socceroos, especially after Fabio Grosso's recent admission his fall was "accentuated."

But this not all to say that Italy has flopped its way to past Cup success (well, not entirely, at least). Beginning in 1978, with a semi-final appearance, a new generation took hold, and Italy's defense and overall efficiency made it into a world power, resulting in two championships since 1982, including 2006's win over France. Italy's defense during the four weeks in Germany in 2006 cannot be highlighted enough -- they allowed only two goals throughout the entire tournament: an own-goal against the United States and a Zidane penalty in the final. That's it.

Now in South Africa, the 2010 squad looks to continue that success, thought it will have to be done without a few familiar faces: Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Grosso are all being left behind. Coach Marcelo Lippi promised to only bring those who helped Italy qualify for the 2010 Cup, and he was indeed a man of his word (perhaps to a fault).

The Azzurri, a squad that was already elderly in 2006, will still rely heavily on 31-year old keeper Gianluigi Buffon and 36-year old defender Fabio Cannavaro, names that even the casual fan would recognize. If Italy hopes to win their second consecutive Cup, it will need Buffon and Cannavaro's experience, defense and leadership. Or just a well-timed dive.

How They Got Here

Despite winning the previous Cup, Italy was not granted an automatic ticket to South Africa. Instead they earned their trip to the 2010 World Cup by winning Group 8 in the UEFA qualification. Italy finished with 24 points (seven wins, three draws), beating out Ireland, which finished second with 18 points.

How They've Fared Before

In a word: well. Italy has won the World Cup four times (1934, 1938, 1982, and most recently, 2006), putting them just one championship behind Brazil for the most ever. It might not be surprising then to also learn that only Italy and Brazil have ever won the Cup twice in succession. Dating back to 1978, Italy has finished at least fifth or better in six of the past eight tournaments.

Players To Watch

Gianluigi Buffon was last seen on the grand stage producing one clean sheet after another in the 2006 World Cup. Considered one of the best keepers in recent memory, Buffon produced five shutouts in the tournament four years ago, and held a scoreless-streak of over 450 minutes. When it was all said and done and Italy hoisted the World Cup trophy, Buffon had allowed only two goals in seven matches: an own goal in the group stage and a penalty by Zidane in the final. Not surprisingly, he was awarded the Lev Yashin Award, given to the best goalkeeper of the tournament.

Fabio Cannavaro, most recently seen appearing on an Italian variety show in Nike's epic "Write the Future" ad, is captain of The Azzurri, Italy's record-holder for most caps (132 dating back to 1997) and one of the team's two pillars (along with Buffon). As the only defender ever to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award (in 2006), Cannavaro already has his place cemented in the annals of soccer history, with his most impressive effort coming in 2006, when he led Italy to their fourth World Cup win. Despite the injury of defensive partner Alessandro Nesta, Cannavaro held the Italian defense together, playing in every single minute of the tournament as The Azzurri surrendered just two goals in the entire Cup.

If you are not a fan of The Azzurri, it is likely that Gennaro Gattuso will be the target of most of your ire. Another veteran (noticing a pattern?), Gattuso is a tireless midfielder, often seen making hard tackles and generally playing with an "aggressive" disposition.

Gattuso pairs with Andrea Pirlo to make for a formidable partnership in the Italian midfield. Pirlo, also over 30-years old, mans the central midfield position for The Azzurri, and is seen as a creative player who is deft with the free-kick. In the 2006 Cup, Pirlo scored the opening goal and set-up another in Italy's 2-0 win over Ghana in group play, assisted on the opening goal against Germany in the semi-finals and then in the championship against France, he produced a corner kick that led to the leveling goal before eventually tallying a goal himself in the penalty shout-out. In all three instances, he was named the Man of the Match.

How Far Can They Get

Matched with Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovkia, The Azzurri are the heavy favorites to win Group F in South Africa. After that, Italy would face the runner-up from Group E in the Round of 16 (likely Cameroon or Denmark). A win there, and they are rewarded with a match in the quarter-finals, where lying in wait will likely be Spain, Portugal or Côte d'Ivoire. Not the most favorable of draws, but with Italy's efficiency, experience and defensive prowess, another trip to the semi-finals is not out of their reach.

Schedule

Date Opponent Location
June 16 Paraguay Cape Town
June 20 New Zealand Nelspruit
June 24 Slovakia Johannesbourg

Final Roster

Goalkeepers
Player Age* Caps Goals Club (Country)
Buffon, Gianluigi 32 100 0 Juventus (Italy)
De Sanctis, Morgan 33 3 0 Napoli (Italy)
Marchetti, Federico 27 4 0 Cagliari (Italy)
Sirigu, Salvatore 23 0 0 Palermo (Italy)
Defenders
Player Age* Caps Goals Club (Country)
Bocchetti, Salvatore 23 3 0 Genoa (Italy)
Bonucci, Leonardo 23 1 0 Bari (Italy)
Cannavaro, Fabio 26 132 2 Juventus (Italy)
Cassani, Mattia 26 2 0 Palermo (Italy)
Chiellini, Giorgio 25 28 2 Juventus (Italy)
Criscito, Domenico 23 5 0 Genoa (Italy)
Maggio, Christian 28 3 0 Napoli (Italy)
Zambrotta, Gianluca 33 92 2 Milan (Italy)
Midfielders
Player Age* Caps Goals Club (Country)
Camoranesi, Mauro 33 53 5 Juventus (Italy)
Cossu, Andrea 30 1 0 Cagliari (Italy)
De Rossi, Daniele 26 52 8 Roma (Italy)
Gattuso, Gennaro 32 71 1 Milan (Italy)
Marchisio, Claudio 24 3 0 Juventus (Italy)
Montolivo, Riccardo 25 12 0 Fiorentia (Italy)
Palombo, Angelo 28 15 0 Sampdoria (Italy)
Pepe, Simone 26 13 0 Udinese (Italy)
Pirlo, Andrea 31 65 8 Milan (Italy)
Forwards
Player Age* Caps Goals Club (Country)
Borriello, Marco 27 4 0 Milan (Italy)
Di Natale, Antonio 32 31 9 Udinese (Italy)
Gilardino, Alberto 27 39 16 Fiorentina (Italy)
Iaquinta, Vincenzo 30 35 5 Juventus (Italy)
Pazzini, Giampaolo 25 6 1 Sampdoria (Italy)
Quagliarella, Favio 27 18 3 Napoli (Italy)
Rossi, Giuseppe 23 14 3 Villareal (Spain)

* - age as of June 11

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