A word about the defending champions. Not since Germany's victory in the desperate 1990 edition of the tournament has any victor been so little celebrated. Doubtless this owes something to the fashion in which Italy prevailed and to the sense that those players who remain in the squad aren't the men they once were, while the newcomers aren't the men they're replacing either.
So Italy arrive in South Africa overlooked and unfancied and available at 16/1 with some bookmakers. That's a value bet worth a modest investment.
I picked—he says, smugly—Italy to win the tournament four years ago and if I wouldn't do so again that says more about the opposition and the apparent impossibility of retaining the trophy than it does about Italy.
True, this doesn't look a vintage Italian side. But how many do? 2006 wasn't. Nor was 1990 (which needed Schillaci's surprise emergence) and even 1982 doesn't always get the respect due a side that defeated Argentina, Brazil and West Germany in a single tournament.
In America and to some extent in Britain too there's not much love for the way Italy play the game. Respect, yes, and admiration too but not love.
So let me be contrarian and say that I love the austere beauty of Italian football. That's not say I think it sensible for everyone to play like Italy—one of the joys of the World Cup in particular is the variety of styles on display—but it suits the Italians.
There is, as I say, a minimalist purity to the essence of Italian football. Score once and don't let the opposition score at all. Job done.*
It's an admirably lean philosophy that distills the game to its simplest concept. This apparent simplicity is deceptive however. It’s exceedingly difficult to play like this and catenaccio is a stern doctrine that places enormous demands upon its adherents precisely because, at its purest, it aims to eliminate all error.
In that sense it's a perversely ambitious way of playing football. At one end of the pitch Italy has produced a string of penalty-box cobras trained to capitalize on fleeting chances; at the other legions of defenders trained to defend the herd at all and any costs, knowing that a single mistake could invite disaster for all.
No wonder games involving Italy are often such taut, high-wire occasions that burn with a subtle intensity. And that's why I always find Italy an intriguing team to watch. Fascinating, even.
And it works. Excluding penalty shoot-outs,** you know how many games Italy have lost in the World Cup since 1982? Four. That’s a better record than any other major country. Better than Brazil (five losses). Better than Germany (eight). Much better than Argentina (nine). It’s a remarkable record that deserves, I think, to be more widely appreciated than it is.
Ah, but, you say, what about the diving—or flopping, in American parlance—and the cheating and the cynicism and all the rest of it? Well that, say I, is a matter for another post later in the tournament.
*Fancifully, I like to imagine that when Italy win a match 2-0 there’s some grey-bearded football philosopher in Bologna or Verona or Milan complaining at all the wasted effort that went into scoring that second goal.
**Italy are almost as bad at penalties as England. I have no idea why this should be the case.