Euro 2012: The Rise (and Fall?) of the Azzurri

By: Paul Andreacchi

After knocking out the heavily favoured Germans in yet another Semi-Final (World Cup ’06 anyone?) the Italian National team marched onto the field for the Euro Cup Final against the possession masters of Spain.  It was always going to be an uphill battle for Buffon and Co. but the 4-0 drubbing reminded everyone who the best team in the world, and possibly ever, really is.

Critics have been noticing the lack of fitness of a lot Italian players and it became glaringly obvious in the Final.  Chasing the ball around against Spain is a difficult feat for any team.  For Italy, an aging and injured team, it proved an impossible task.  As a result, Italy’s defense put in a rare atrocious performance.  Much of the defensive problems stemmed from Giorgio Chiellini’s lingering hamstring injury that began in Juventus’ final game of the season.  Chiellini was outpaced and out of position for the first goal and was almost immediately substituted.  With his substitution, the brilliant all Juve backline was broken up while Balzaretti and Abate proved just how much of non-threat they are on both sides of the field.

No injury had a greater impact than Thiago Motta going down 5 minutes after his introduction.  After the 2-0 1st half and some classic ‘I’ve played for Udinese my whole life’ misses from Di Natale, Motta’s removal from the field zapped all hope and morale that was left while Spain continued to play their best game of the last few years.

The better team won on Sunday, of that there is no question.  What remains to be seen is the fate of Italian Football going into the next generation of the Azzurri.

Going into the tournament, many questions lingered in people’s minds about this batch of Italian players. Many of these questions and concerns were answered.

Firstly, the Italian Peter Pan (Mario Balotelli) proved that he is one of the most talented and compelling footballers on the planet.  The Balotelli Hat-Trick (2 goals and 1 card) against Germany put Super Mario’s talent and ability on full display.  Meanwhile, Cesare Prandelli did a remarkable job controlling the temperament and behavior of someone who once lit his own house on fire.

Secondly, the midfield has proven itself to be the most potent of Italy’s weapons, rather than the typical defensive powerhouse they had become known for. Montolivo has given AC Milan fans a little more hope for next year, Marchisio continues to be the young burgeoning star for Juventus, and Daniele De Rossi displayed why he is Serie A’s highest paid player with truly brilliant performances throughout the tournament and in various positions (I just wished he shaved that hideous beard). However, Andrea Pirlo has made it quite clear that he is a ‘once in a generation’ player with an uncanny ability to see the game in a special way.  After playing and starting every single game with Juventus this season and being the catalyst for their undefeated season, Pirlo continued his wonderful form into the Euro and should have at least garnered some serious consideration for the Ballon D’or.

Finally and most importantly, the Azzurri proved once again that they are a team of immense character.  Ashamedly, they entered yet another international tournament as a corruption scandal rocked Italian soccer.  Much like in 2006, the Azzurri used this not as an excuse for mediocrity or failure (I’m looking at you England) but as a galvanizing force that elevated their performances.  Italy has shown again that they know how to play TOGETHER (now I’m looking at you France) and achieve greatness in the process.  For this, Azzurri fans should be proud of their camaraderie.

Leaving the Tournament, though, important questions remain that could alter Italian soccer forever.

Part of this camaraderie amongst the Italian team exists because so many of them play together at a high level in Serie A, with many on the same teams.  For example, Buffon, Bonucci, Barazagli, Chiellini, Marchisio, and Pirlo make up almost half of the starting lineups for both Italy and Juventus.  However, one has to wonder how long Serie A can continue to produce and groom elite soccer players.  For years Serie A has been falling behind the major leagues of Spain and England and losing substantial ground to the emerging German and French leagues. Decrepit and unsafe stadiums, the uncontrollable influence of extreme fan groups and general corruption at various levels of Italian soccer has resulted in the steady decline of revenue and international relevance.

As a result, Serie A teams are not able to pay the growing salaries and transfer fees of the world’s best players.  In a recent transfer story that speaks volumes, owner of AC Milan Silvio Berlusconi (Italy’s famous pimp daddy and former Prime Minister) has told his team’s supporters that they should thank him for not selling Thiago Silva to Paris for a hefty fee.  The Milan of even 5 years ago would never dream of selling their most prized asset, but financial issues have driven even the biggest Italian teams to become ‘sellers’, rather than ‘buyers’.  Even talented players that Serie A has produced seem to view the league as a stepping stone to bigger and brighter places (See Ibrahimovic, Lazezzi, Cavani ….)  The strength of Serie A has always been the Azzurri’s driving force of success but its declining influence and prestige will not doubt hand the national team a troubling batch of players in the future.

The Azzurri may already be feeling the repercussions of its domestic failings.  With Andrea Pirlo drifting away from International soccer, there is simply no young and bright replacement that can even come close to replacing him.  Even Italy’s attack has no Vieri or Del Piero waiting in the wings to take the Azzurri by storm.  Balotelli is close, but has a long way to go to become a dominant focal point of one of most storied International football teams in the world.

Italian soccer has a lot of problems that it will face that may alter the fate of the Azzurri for generations.  However, the Euro 2012 tournament should be remembered as yet another shining example of what team camaraderie, passion, and commitment can bring a team.  They did come up short in the end but they provided their supporters with the most gratifying emotions of any sports endeavor:  the ability to transcend the multitude of problems and negativity surrounding a team with sheer brilliance of performance.

It is said that ‘pride comes before the fall’.  Azzurri supporters should be immensely proud of Italy’s recent performances.  Now, let us all hope that Italian soccer on a domestic and international level does not begin its free fall.

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