Lippi's lust for lucky omens
Progress? What progress? We may have entered a new millennium of modernity, one in which we can enjoy novelties like e-books and England games live on the web, but in football, the Dark Ages still persist. Superstitions, good-luck charms, omens - you name it, football has them.
I am not referring to the vial of holy water Giovanni Trapattoni furtively took out of his pocket during the second half of Ireland's game against Italy last Saturday. No, what is truly a measure of how centuries of innovation and scientific progress have passed in vain is the post-match remarks made by Italy coach Marcello Lippi after the 2-2 draw with Ireland.
Lippi reiterated a point made in the Italian press; that the only previous times the Azzurri had secured their passage to the World Cup with one game to spare were in 1981 and 2005 and, as fate would have it, two World Cup triumphs followed soon after.
Now, life can't always be taken seriously, and readers should always remember that the glut of sports dailies and TV networks obsessively covering football in Italy means no stone is left unturned in the often unfulfilled quest for something original and meaningful. But to cling to an anecdotal fact immediately after a hard-fought away draw was a bit disappointing of Lippi. He may have enjoyed the status of wise old head as an unwritten bonus for leading Italy to an unforgettable World Cup triumph in 2006, but has rarely met a microphone or reporter's notebook to great effect.
Two years into his second tenure with the Azzuri, Lippi claims to have "rebuilt" the side that had disappointed during the reign of Roberto Donadoni, a coach who never seemed to enjoy being around a national media that was clearly - and perhaps justifiably - sceptical of his ability. That Lippi used the very word "rebuild" could be seen as a jibe at Donadoni, perhaps unintentional but deeply meaningful. Italy's indifferent performances at Euro 2008, where they still took eventual winners Spain to penalties, had left the side in urgent need of tactical and perhaps psychological repair. Lippi was all too eager to return to the position he had given up after the World Cup success, when he resigned in order to ease the burden on his son, who was attempting to clear his name in the Calciopoli scandal.
At least, for once, no mention of Antonio Cassano was made to him. One could be less than impressed at the manager's quick loss of patience as soon as the mercurial Sampdoria forward is named, but it must also be said the obsession with Cassano has been raised to an unhealthy limit.
Whether it's regional bias, or the sincere admiration for someone whose performances so far this campaign befit a Player of the Season contender, the ghost of Cassano has followed Lippi's Italy with a curious disregard for anything the Azzurri have actually accomplished on the pitch. It made no difference whether it was a lucky 2-0 win in Georgia or a brilliant defeat of Bulgaria by the same score four days later, "mett'a Cassano" (put Cassano in, as an ever-present banner in regional dialect says) has continued to be the call to arms.
Brilliant as he's been as a re-born leader, sleight-of-foot creator and goalscorer for joint table-topping Sampdoria, Cassano may be difficult to fit into one of the many formations Lippi has thus far used in his quest to find the perfect balance.
One could say that having called up a total of 43 players in little more than a year, any inclusion of Cassano in the manager's plans would hardly be a daring gesture. But the opposite is true: being a special player, Cassano can hardly be seen as just a squad member, unless he volunteers for duty should the side need a spark during matches.
The talk about Cassano has sadly overshadowed the efficient demeanour Italy have displayed in the latter part of Lippi's second stint with the Azzurri - and it's taking up most of this article, too, which was originally meant to dismiss it!
Most national sides have a history of letting one or two star players get away for the sake of squad harmony - something the reformed character from inner Bari may not even threaten - and the Cassano situation may remind observers of similar instances involving Roberto Baggio in 2002 and on a lesser scale Alberto Gilardino in 2004.
Trapattoni left the ageing but rejuvenated Baggio out of his 2002 World Cup squad and resisted the temptation to carry the emerging Gilardino to the 2004 European Championships. It was perhaps ironic then that it should be the Fiorentina striker who perfectly judged the flight of the ball before stabbing home a predatory equaliser for Italy against Trapattoni's Ireland last Saturday. Lippi will never coach a foreign side so there is no danger of Cassano exacting "revenge" on him one day, but the next six months before the World Cup squad is determined will again be filled with speculation, controversy, campaigning and innuendos.
After all, as soon as the questions about Cassano had died out before each match, another matter of annoyance was brought up; why was Lippi calling up so many players from Juventus, a side he'll be forever linked with?
The obvious answer, of course, is that Juventus have more quality Italian players than any other Serie A team, in fact their best XI may be comprised of six Azzurri starters. By the way, you know what happened the last time most of the starting XI came from Juventus in 1982? Oh, never mind.