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A Roman Column

Football Summer

Neeman A Sobhan

Written on June 11:
Thirty two nations of the world have gathered in South Africa to drink from that magical chalice of sport: the World Cup. The last two to quaff from it will be either heady with victory or will reel and fall from sipping the poisoned wine of defeat. But from the 11th of June till the 11th of July there will be many minor hiccups from winning and losing the initial battles within the eight groups of four countries till that last tussle at the final game, to see who raises the triumphal silver goblet of world championship.

Here in Italy, the land of the defending World Champions of the last Coppa Mondiale, the Azzurri team seems to be nursing a hangover. The morning after the party of the 2006 victory has arrived with some headaches. The CT (commissario technico) or the beloved national team trainer, Lippi, needs more than a few aspirins to get his team fully awake to the challenge of the day.

Written on June 21:
I am writing this on the eve of Italy's final group encounter with Slovakia, with a prayer in my heart for the Azzurris to redeem themselves after the New Zealand upset, and earn some badly needed points to take them to the next round. With Paraguay leading Group F with 4 points, we need a miracle to see Italia continuing any further.

Here in Rome, we have been very quiet this summer of the Coppa Mondiale 2010. Right from the start, I noticed a lack of the usual enthusiasm that football generally, and the World cup particularly, generates among Italians. On the day of the opening group match for Italy, against Paraguay, I went out to buy a flag and was surprised to see that none of the houses in my neighbourhood was displaying the national colours. Normally, flags draped on balconies are a sight to be expected whenever Italy plays. At first, I thought that it was too early in the season.

But it seemed that Italians are not happy with the team that has been cobbled together by Lippi, the otherwise respected national trainer. Some feel that too many seasoned players have been left out: strikers Giuseppe Rossi, Marco Borriello, Luca Toni; defenders Mattia Cassani; mid-fielder Andrea Cossu; and full back Fabio Grosso. The absence of our own Roma forward, 'il puppone', Francesco Totti is also felt, but in this case, the player himself had quit the squad but it had been hoped that he would return.

The injury of Andrea Pirlo a week before the World cup kick-off, and the later injury of Gigi Buffon have not been good for the national morale.

But let's face it, all of the above are only excuses if a team has been training well and has the winning attitude. Football is about playing and making the best of the field. The Azzurris have always worked well under pressure and even now, if we can only make it--- okay scrape through, to the next round, we can still show the world some classy moves.

So far, the Italia team has been disappointing. Going by the last match against the 78 ranking New Zealand, the theme for the Azzurri's performance so far has been, 'so many lost chances'. It has been a long litany of 'Oh! No' starting, of course, from the shocking Kiwi goal (which seemed an off-side to many) to the chain of missed opportunities by Chiellini, Zambrotta, Montolivo, di Natale and Camorensi. The penalty goal by Iaquinta created not a cheer in the whole neighbourhood. There was only a hush of relief and hope. I miss the wild cheering of other World Cups.

As I write this, the last Group F match of Italy, against Slovakia, is yet to come, and by the time this column sees the light of day the results will already be known. Sitting in the wings of this suspended 'now', and not knowing what the future has in store for my beloved and beleagured team, I can only pray with other Azzurro supporters that by some miracle we will still remain in the game.

But what a surprising World cup this is turning out to be. All the European big fish, France, Germany, England, Spain, are being gobbled up by the minnows. Notice that I did not mention Italy in the list above. This is out of respect for the Italians propensity for being a superstitious nation. I refuse to list Italy in a list with the L word, unless it spells Love and Long-Live! But the Italians are also full of spiritual and religious faith, something spectators notice when the players regularly cross themselves.

Granted this World Cup seems to be turning into a Latin-fest but the defending champions cannot fall off with a whimper. I wish to just see Italy go with a good face, make a 'bella figura.'

All I can offer at this point is a prayer for miracles. The important thing is that the team have faith in itself too. The rest is up to the Football god in FIFA heaven. But aren't heavens necessarily tinted an azure blue? So to Cannavaro and his boys in the azure blue shirts, to the Azzurri, we can only say: Come on, Ragazzi! Go for it. You have nothing to lose.

You may be ranked 4 in the world but will always be Numero Uno for die hard supporters like me.

So come what may: Forza Azzurri!

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