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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.