BY FRANCO FICETOLA
What does it take for a nation to be successful at football? Is it economic wealth? Is it a large population? Has it something to do with a physical predisposition of its citizens? While all these things are not completely devoid of incidence (whatsoever form it may take), they don’t answer the question, for history teaches us that the most important factor is the scope of the grassroots movement in a given country. It’s not even necessarily about its absolute size, but rather about the share of people that are spontaneously interested in keeping the beautiful game alive. Take Costa Rica, a country that doesn’t even have five million inhabitants but, with a ‘football population’ amounting to a fourth of the total, brilliantly made it to the World Cup quarter finals in 2014. This should always be taken into account when trying to assess the disgraceful and premature elimination of Italy from Russia 2018.
It is often said that, when it comes to the national team, Italy can boast 60 million managers. Not to mention all the foreign commentators who added their voice to the chorus after the two-legged defeat against Sweden. To be sure, amongst all the ranting and wringing of hands, there are some capable of making some very reasonable points. That’s certainly the case with Marco Giampaolo.
Seeing the way Sampdoria play every Sunday in the 2017/18 campaign, it’s impossible to overlook a certain degree of wisdom in their coach. In a recent interview Giampaolo highlighted how, despite the ample diffusion of the most populist football opinion ever, foreigners are not the ones to blame for Italy’s failure.
“Take a look at the players called up for Germany 2006, you’ll notice that most of them had gone from Serie C to Serie A: people like Oddo, Grosso, Barzagli. Now Serie A clubs give a monetary prize to those Serie C clubs that regularly field their loanees. In this way, competitiveness fades away. Back in the days, a boy had to burn the grass below his feet to play in Serie C, now he plays because this brings money to the club. Politics murdered football.”
Marco Giampaolo’s views, beyond being among the most sensible ones heard since that grievous 0 - 0 draw in San Siro, are also the perfect starting point to join the aforementioned pool of experts and bring some contribution to the discussion.
According to the ‘grassroots movement’ theory, dwelt upon in the opening part, it’s not possible for Italy to have lost its way all of a sudden. A riddle often heard in the streets after the fiasco was “We don’t have Tottis, Pirlos and Del Pieros anymore”. While this is certainly true, if we look at the present situation, one should actually deepen the analysis and ask why is it that Italy seems now to lack world class players, except for, maybe, Lorenzo Insigne, Marco Verratti, Leonardo Bonucci and some remnants of the older generation.
The absolute truth is hard to pin down, but considering Giampaolo’s words, one can find some traces of a major malady. In the recent editions of the European Under-21 Championships, Italy has often been considered one of the most interesting teams by the critics. The azzurrini even made it to the final in 2013, only succumbing to Álvaro Morata and Isco’s mighty Spain. Given their performances, we can affirm on a solid basis that talent has not deserted Italy.
Talent is still there, where it’s always been. Maybe not as much as it once was. The fact is that, in the end, talent is not the only thing that makes a decent football player into an outstanding football player. There’s more, there’s responsibility. Where does responsibility come from? It comes from facing challenges bigger than us. For a young footballer whose talent is above the average, it means playing in an environment which can grant him the necessary stimuli to turn into something more than a promising youngster. Some of them will struggle to adapt, but those able to overcome difficulties will turn into ripe players, ready to take over the world of football, and strong enough to build a strong national team upon. “Ripe” must not be mistaken for “phenomenal”, like Kylian Mbappé or Marco Asensio: it simply means “able to replace an older player in the same position without making people regret him”.
In the boot-shaped country, young talents are simply not spurred on enough, with few exceptions. The powerhouses of Italian football often tend to rely on older players, and the national team is right on their heels. As a consequence, Alessio Romagnoli, Daniele Rugani and Mattia Caldara, universally considered as the heirs to the Italian rearguard, have only amassed nine caps between them (five for Romagnoli, four for Rugani, zero for Caldara), despite not being ‘kids’ anymore (all of them are 23). Domenico Berardi, from the class of 1994, even though he’s considered the best Italian talent of his generation, has no appearances at all for the national team. Obviously, the serious injuries he’s suffered throughout the years and the evident involution faced in the 2017/18 season must be taken into account, but we’re still talking of a player who played 176 games, scored 61 goals and provided 45 assists in the black-and-green of Sassuolo.
These players are among those whose strength is widely acknowledged, but behind them there’s another brood eager to know if and when they’ll be given their debut in the national team. Instead of counting on them, Italy keeps sticking to the tried and trusted old guard which, while glorious, grows older year after year. In the meantime, lots of valiant youngsters languish in the lower leagues where, as Giampaolo said, they lose most of their competitive spirit.
Nevertheless, examples are there for all to see. Germany showed up at South Africa 2010 amid general scepticism, with only two players above 30: one was Miroslav Klose, the World Cup legend, the other was Hans-Jörg Butt, the third-choice goalkeeper. Alongside these two there were Toni Kroos (20), Thomas Müller (20), Mesut Özil (21), Jérôme Boateng (21), Sami Khedira (23), and they went on to become the spine of the team that claimed World Cup glory four years down the line and established itself as one of the strongest national teams ever, in a crystal-clear evidence that boldness sometimes pays off. It’s a truism to which a nation should cling to with all its energy when history makes it end up with its back against the wall.
If the grassroots movement, as it’s right to assume, is still strong in Italy, it means that the country is not devoid of good youngsters. The point is that talent is like crude oil. Sometimes it may come out by itself, under the right conditions, but most of it is well-concealed under the surface and will stay there until someone digs it out with stubbornness and dedication.
FOLLOW FRANCO ON TWITTER @Franco92C14