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Sunday, June 13, 2010
Azzurri apathy reigns supreme

Roberto Gotta

Whenever someone yawned in class during my history lessons as a child, professors would lift their index fingers and warn us to pay attention. They would then add gravitas to their words by uttering that old Latin saying historia magistra vitae - 'history teaches life'. Well, this just in: it doesn't. At least, not in sport. Witness the general attitude towards the Italian national team, both before they left for South Africa and now they've been training there for a few days. Left disillusioned by what many feel are puzzling call-ups, few fans are willing to concede the team has even a small chance of winning the World Cup. It seems no one remembers the same sentiment prevailed four years ago and before at previous World Cups; what happened out on the pitch on those occasions often had little to do with predictions, suspicions and prejudices. So people never learn. And keeping the historical perspective alive, history repeats itself, too, in the way the general public has approached the World Cup from an emotional point of view. To call it scepticism would be an understatement. More appropriate terms would be disdain, detachment, negativity, at times even hostility. Not surprisingly for a country that has taken sectarianism to a perverse art form, the inclusion or exclusion of specific players in the national team will kindle any of the above sentiments among fans of the relevant club sides. It does not take much to imagine that a good portion of Sampdoria fans will not look forward to the Azzurri matches as much as they would had Antonio Cassano, their idol for much of the past three seasons, been called up alongside Samp captain Angelo Palombo. And since Cassano, for reasons that sometimes have as much to do with his high football IQ as with his creative personality, seems to have a huge number of fans, you can count on many of them to at least sit on the fence until the Azzurri actually show something, which may not be until deep into the tournament. If they get there, of course. There is no doubt this sort of partisan approach takes place elsewhere too, but the suspicion is it has deeper roots here because of the way the country has been ever since it became unified, which by coincidence was exactly 150 years ago. We have never been able to leave centuries of town versus town, region versus region conflicts behind, and this attitude is reflected in a less than enthusiastic approach towards the Azzurri in the days leading up to the tournament, especially with the insane attention the home transfer market is given by the media. Witness a headline on a Turin-based newspaper website on Friday. It mentioned Italy as ItalJuve, just because Simone Pepe, a Juventus player for all of two days after signing from Udinese, had scored two of the Azzurri's six goals against a regional side from Pretoria. It is a consequence of a tendency detected in politics. As a general rule, if a politician we did not vote for or dislike climbs to power, we do not feel represented whenever he travels abroad on official business. He's not one of our guys, and we'd rather feel close and care about to someone we know and trust. The majority of Inter fans, then, were probably more concerned about Rafa Benitez putting his signature at the foot of his contract than Italy's defence on Monday. Across the country, people have seemed more excited by the prospect of the dozens of televised matches showcasing the stars of Serie A - the Militos, the Maicons, the Bolattis - than the Azzurri finally taking to the field against Paraguay. There are, of course, legions of football fans already rummaging through their attics or garages in search of their vintage 2006 flags and polishing their mopeds for another wild ride across the town centre when, or if, Italy wins the next game. Lots of restaurants have already set up big screens and special menus for the first game and subsequent group matches, but it's easy to remember that public displays of enthusiasm in the past have usually been an effect of the realisation yet another hurdle has been overcome and the final destination is getting nearer, rather than the final product of deep-rooted, perennial emotional attachment. This is one of the reasons Italian fans are not in the same league as the English, Mexicans or Dutch when it comes to following the team abroad. As Carlo Ancelotti noted last week, Italians do not seem to have the passion for their side, day after day, that the English do, and the average fan is more likely to save money for an end-of-the-season trip to a European final than the Azzurri around the world. This attitude in turn leads to a perennial tendency to see the glass half empty before a ball has even been kicked, and while post-win celebrations are colourful and noisy, there would never be the kind of enthusiastic send-off Scotland, to mention one nation, received at Hampden Park in 1978 before their ill-fated trip to Argentina. In fact, disillusionment and low expectations are so much the norm that even Gianluca Zambrotta, one of the nine world champions in this year's squad, mentioned them as part of the nation's DNA when it comes to the days preceding the tournament. And Fabio Capello, who has expressed strongly critical views about Italian fans in the past, remarked on Friday how sad he felt that "Italians are not close to the Azzurri, because that would be very important for the country as a whole". The effects of this national attitude could be seen after Italy lost to Mexico in the penultimate friendly match last week. A quick look at fans' websites showed many, instead of focusing on the fact it was a friendly against a team who had trained for longer, had already drawn the conclusion Lippi's choices are wrong, some of the players are leaden-footed after a long season and perhaps it would be better to come home as soon as possible to avoid embarrassment at the hands of a really good side in the knockout phase. Deeply negative thoughts, albeit in cafes and squares instead of websites, also shrouded Enzo Bearzot's sides before they left for Argentina in 1978 and Spain in 1982, and those turned out to be among the best World Cups Italy played. This does not mean, of course, that being immersed in a cloud of negativity automatically produces better effort and cohesiveness in the players, but pessimism surely becomes bulletin board material and can provide Lippi with further motivation. That siege mentality in 2006 was created by the Calciopoli scandal. Some called for Lippi's resignation on ethical grounds, but it was not until after the finals that he left his post. The general feeling was that Italian football was at the lowest of its many low points, but that helped cement the kind of team spirit that contributed to the triumph as much as the coach's astute tactical choices. This time, no such motivation is in place, as Lippi himself mentioned during pre-World Cup training. Members of the squad are left with the option of picking up bits of scepticism from the outside world and trying to put them together to form a motivational tool, or clinging to other sporting figures like female tennis player Francesca Schiavone, who won the French Open last Sunday and was then mentioned by Lippi as a positive example for her ability to overcome her limits. It all looks a bit hollow, though, and Lippi, who's often railed at the notion the Azzurri are seen as aloof and unlikeable, will have to do better than that. Irritated by the constant questioning and the perennial negativity, and perhaps by the fact few seem willing to give him the benefit of doubt despite his 2006 heroics, Lippi has already warned he will not allow anybody on the bandwagon this time, if results go Italy's way. You can see his point, but you wonder if his willpower and ability to run the rule over the likes of Rino Gattuso will extend to the world of metaphors. You can talk about bandwagons, but have you actually ever seen one?

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