Italy searching for answers in wake of early exit

Italy’s early elimination from the World Cup has strengthened the belief that football in the country desperately needs a new direction.

Italy searching for answers in wake of early exit

Italy’s early elimination from the World Cup has strengthened the belief that football in the country desperately needs a new direction.

Eight years on from their glorious victory in Germany, the Azzurri have now suffered back-to-back first-round exits in the competition for the first time since the 1950s.

Serie A has also lost some of its lustre, with the last Italian club to lift the Champions League trophy being Inter Milan in 2010.

“We have to ask ourselves why we have gone out twice in the first round of a World Cup,” Italian Football Federation vice-president Demetrio Albertini said.

“In the 1990s we were the best in the world and everyone looked at us. Now we have remained behind while others have built their future.

“Sport needs to go back to being the main focus and not the administrative end, which has given the results we have seen in European club competition.

“We need to ask ourselves if our football should only be a transition point for top players.”

There was an illusion in Italy, however, that the national team was still in very good shape.

The Azzurri enjoyed a surprising runners-up finish at Euro 2012 and they followed that up with third place at last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. Italy also went unbeaten in World Cup qualifying.

All of that seems to have given the fans a false sense of confidence.

What was most disappointing about the World Cup was that Italy managed to win their first game, a 2-1 triumph over England in Manaus, yet inexplicably fell flat against unheralded Costa Rica and Uruguay.

One result of the early exit was the resignation of coach Cesare Prandelli, who had signed a two-year contract extension before the tournament.

“Our own strength was to have a philosophy of play but in the last two games we lost that,” Prandelli said.

“I don’t know why, perhaps for physical or psychological reasons, maybe it was fear.”

Perhaps a more damning indictment of the Italian situation was the criticism of their veteran players in the immediate aftermath which was aimed at the new generation.

“You can see who was actually playing on the field and who wasn’t there,” Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said.

“All too often you hear about the need for change, that Buffon, (Andrea) Pirlo, (Daniele) De Rossi, (Giorgio) Chiellini and (Andrea) Barzagli are too old. But the truth is when the wagon needs pulling, these are always the ones in the front row. They deserve a bit more respect.

“When you’re on the field, you’ve got to deliver. It doesn’t matter what you potentially could deliver, or what you might be able to deliver in future - you’ve got to deliver it there and then.”

It did not help that Italy lost AC Milan captain and veteran midfielder Riccardo Montolivo to a shin fracture during a friendly against the Republic of Ireland shortly before the tournament.

Even so, Buffon’s rebuke of the younger players was revealing.

The fact that De Rossi was in agreement with Buffon suggested a division existed in the Italy camp.

“I can only underline what Buffon said,” De Rossi said. “It’s true that we embody the right spirit.

“It’s also true that we are the ones who always stand up to be counted.

“Anybody who doesn’t feel like instilling the same effort and anybody who does not share the same passion should just stay at home.”

The president of the Italian Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, joined the chorus of criticism.

“From a sporting and football standpoint it has been a failure,” he said. “I’m disappointed by many things, especially the little quality in our game.”

There is an alarming statistic which is likely to be addressed when considering the future of the national team and that is the investment in home-grown players.

In the 2013-14 Serie A campaign, only 42 percent of the players on the pitch were Italian and the rest were foreigners.

“We need to work on the Italian movement,” Prandelli said. “We are in a crisis.

“We only invest in foreign players in the youth teams.”

What remains unclear is the future of the most talked about and scrutinised player in the national team, Mario Balotelli.

Prandelli not only took the AC Milan striker to Brazil but started him in all three games.

Balotelli had a good start by scoring the winning goal against England but did not make an impact against Costa Rica and with Italy fighting for their World Cup lives against Uruguay, Prandelli lost faith in him and replaced him at half-time.

“I told Mario when we said goodbye that if he wants to become the player he thinks he is, he needs to face reality and not live in his virtual world,” Prandelli said.

“I told him that he needs to learn from this experience because the national team needs him.”

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