The inquest into Italy’s underwhelming Euro 2008 campaign goes on, but one thing is for certain, and that is the Azzurri were short of genuine, world class players in Austria and Switzerland. Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti undoubtedly fall into this category, and Italy could surely have only benefited from their presence (disregarding the latter’s current injury) had they both not retired from international football last year.
With it increasingly likely that Marcello Lippi will return to the fold to succeed Roberto Donadoni, there have been reports in the media that he will immediately bring back Nesta and Totti. Would this be a good idea though?
If there is one lesson that the Azzurri must surely learn from Euro 2008, it is that they require more dynamism, pace, and young blood in their team. Experience and tactical know-how is vital of course, but the mix and balance has to be right. Taking to the field for the first game against Holland with nine players over the age of 30 (and another aged 29) was a recipe for disaster.
By the time the 2010 World Cup comes along in South Africa, most of the current Italy squad will be pushing towards and past their mid-30s. Christian Panucci (who will be 37), Marco Materazzi (36), Massimo Ambrosini (33), Alex Del Piero (35), Simone Perrotta (33) must not be still around, while there should also be question marks next to the names of Rino Gattuso, Luca Toni, and even Fabio Cannavaro, who will be nearly 37.
The new coach, let’s just assume it is Lippi, needs to start building towards 2010. The Azzurri have a relatively easy qualifying group, and it is imperative that he begins to blood some youngsters immediately so that come South Africa they are comfortable and experienced, unlike Alberto Aquilani, who despite being a great prospect, was thrown in at the deep end against Spain having only won a handful of caps. With this in mind, would it be wise to recall Nesta, who will be 34 in 2010, and Totti, who will be 33 years and nine months?
In the case of Nesta, Lippi must do everything possible to entice him back. The Milan man has been one of the great stoppers of the past decade, and I have no doubts that he will still be a class act come 2010. More importantly, Italy are currently going through possibly the worst period in their history in terms of up-and-coming centre backs. Giorgio Chiellini was a revelation in the Euros, and certainly looks like he can be the real deal. Napoli’s Fabiano Santacroce (nicknamed by some as the ‘new Nesta’) is a stunningly raw talent and has shown all the signs of a future great defender.
However, apart from these two players, there is little else around. Two more seasons may take their toll on Cannavaro, while it seems doubtful that Andrea Barzagli or Alessandro Gamberini will be good enough. In simple terms, Nesta would certainly strengthen the Italy backline.
As for Totti, my view is completely different. Apart from starring for the Azzurri way back at Euro 2000, and providing a few assists at the 2006 World Cup, the Roma symbol never came close to replicating his outstanding club form for his country. If he could not do it for Italy during his prime, there is little chance of him suddenly turning it on at the age of nearly 34.
Recalling Totti would undoubtedly prove that Italy have not learned their lessons from the Euros. Unlike in defence, Italy have some fantastic, fresh, and vibrant support strikers coming through, such as Sebastian Giovinco, Giuseppe Rossi, and even the 17-year-old Mario Balotelli, who is already mature beyond his years.
I am all in favour of the Italian system of protecting talented youngsters from getting physically and mentally burnt out before their mid-20s, as has happened to some explosive players in other countries. However, sometimes the Azzurri extend this formula too far, and players who are past their best, as Totti will be in 2010, block the younger players coming through.