FIFA RANK: 5
When I started these previews, I thought to myself, I can't wait to get to Italy because the entire article would center around one player, Italian forward Guiseppe Rossi. The kid was born in New Jersey, a hotbed of US Soccer, and considered a prodigy...the future of the game for the Stars and Stripes. But at age 13, he and his Italian father gave the US Soccer Federation a virtual kick to the gut and decided Guiseppe would play for Italy. Since then, he's been called everything from "Ultimate Traitor" to "Judas" to "Benedict Arnold" here in the states. "ESPN The Magazine" even put out an entire spread on Guiseppe about a month ago and titled it "America's best chance to win in South Africa." Well there was one big problem, Guiseppe didn't even make the final Italian roster.
Imagine that, a player who would have easily been the face of US Soccer this summer doesn't even make the cut for Italy. In all fairness, Rossi should have made the squad. He's a dynamic talent, but he's only 23 years old and anyone who follows Italian soccer knows the Azzurri will go to the grave with their veteran players. But you can hardly blame them.
The Azzurri are one of the most powerful soccer nations in the world. They've won the World Cup four times (The only back to back winners) and head to South Africa as defending champions. Nearly the entire roster returns from that '06 championship team, and eventhough they're oldest overall squad in the tournament, their supporters expect them to keep the trophy in Rome.
The names leading the Azzurri are all too familiar. Captain Fabio Cannavaro, 36, is a truly great defender. He willed this team to victory in Germany, but there are serious questions whether he is past his prime. Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the world's best keeper and if the Italians catch themselves in a penalty kick game, more often than not, Buffon will make the crucial save. AC Milan's Andrea Pirlo is the "maestro of the midfield," but if he is off his game, then the Azzurri struggle to score. It would have been an ideal spot to sub in Rossi, and given me a little more fire for this article, but I digress.
I'll never forget four years ago when Italy played the US in the group stage of the World Cup. I despised the Azzurri. I thought they flopped on every call, heck, I even called them the Vlade Divac/Shane Battier all-stars. So I was genuinely proud the Americans pulled off a draw. But as that tournment went along, I learned to respect Italy's unity and team spirit. I won't go as far as saying they will again, but their experience goes a long way. I can't really find much else bad to say about the Italians...geez, if only Guiseppe "Judas" Rossi had made this team!
June 14 vs. Paraguay - 1:30 p.m. CT (Best match of group, both teams should make it through)
June 20 vs. New Zealand - 9 a.m. CT (Italians should have no problems with Kiwis)
June 24 vs.. Slovakia - 9 a.m. CT (Italy should be through, the bench will get some action here)
NEXT ON THE PITCH: NETHERLANDS/HOLLAND