Football: Italy in the grip of a bout of self-doubt

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If there is one thing Italians like to do more than revel in a great footballing victory, it is wallowing in the misery of a great footballing opportunity missed.

Andrew Gumbel reports on a week of post-mortems, recriminations and fear for the future after the Italy's 0-0 draw against England in Rome.

It doesn't seem so long ago that the Italian side was brimming with confidence about their prospects for the World Cup. Arrigo Sacchi, the abrasive and unpopular national coach, was sent packing at the beginning of the year, and in his place came a gentleman and a shrewd tactician, Cesare Maldini who quickly masterminded a victory over England at Wembley. Italy had Zola, they had Baggio, they had Ravanelli. What on earth could go wrong?

Well, the Italians now know what did: too many draws against sides, like Georgia, that they should have beaten even on a bad day, and not enough punch against the real adversaries in their group, most notably England, who undoubtedly got the best of a tense, if goalless, draw in the Olympic Stadium in Rome last Saturday night.

Rubbed up against the humiliating reality of having to go through the play-offs to clinch a place in France next year, the Italians - both the team and the country at large - have been doing some hard thinking this week. Is the problem Maldini? Or is it one or more of the players? Or pure bad luck?

Most outspoken in the immediate aftermath of the England match was Gianfranco Zola, who complained that he had been forced at the last minute to play in an unfamiliar position, just behind the front line of attack, and thus had his considerable talents wasted. Was this Maldini's big mistake? Apparently not: it now emerges that Zola told his coach the same night not to believe anything he read in the next day's papers. The two of them had agreed on Zola's position days in advance, and the Chelsea striker sounded off to the press merely to take some of the heat off what had undoubtedly been a disappointing personal performance.

Such devious media management actually served to distract attention from Italy's real problem, in midfield. This was where England showed their superiority most decisively, and where the Italian side are most sorely lacking. All it took was one early injury (to Paolo Maldini) and the Italian middle was floundering. As the authoritative football writer Gianni Mura assessed: "It's worrying when a northern European midfield runs rings around us... If we don't have Albertini, or Di Matteo, or Baggio, all of a sudden we're on red alert. So it's not Maldini's fault if our midfield isn't producing miracles."

Maldini himself referred to the problem too. Many of the most accomplished midfielders playing in the Italian league game are foreigners, he noted, giving him limited choice for the national side. Overall, Maldini insisted that his team had nothing to regret: true, they were outclassed on the night, but on the other hand they gave nothing away.

One man who has dissented strongly from that view is Internazionale's newly acquired Brazilian star, Ronaldo. "I think Italy will qualify for the World Cup," he said, "but if they carry on playing the way they are now they won't even get through the first round. The Italians played very badly and in very disorderly fashion."

Asked about Maldini directly, Ronaldo laid the sarcasm on thick. "He's got great problems. In Italy there are so many good players that it's very hard for him to pick and choose."

Overall, however, the press and public have tried not to pin blame on anyone in particular. Instead, they have been gripped by an uncharacteristic sort of panic - the fear that Italy really may not be as good as they always thought they were. The latest Fifa classification figures, published this week, appeared to bear this out, rating Italy a lowly 16th on the world scale, alongside Morocco - as low a showing as Italy has had since the figures were introduced four years ago.

The loss of national confidence manifested itself all too clearly in the draw for the play-offs. On Monday morning, the Italian papers were saying they'd be happy with any side except Yugoslavia. By Monday evening, with Russia the country pulled out of the Fifa hat, the line had changed to: we'd have been happy with any side except Yugoslavia or Russia.

Italy remain the favourites to pull through the play-offs and qualify for the World Cup, and are certainly considered the toughest possible opponents by the Russian players, but you certainly wouldn't know that in this most football-obsessive of countries. Italy is beset by stage- fright, and won't overcome it until a good couple of balls have found the back of the Russian net in Moscow on 29 October.

Seeking to convey the mood after the England game, one newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, borrowed a line from Malcolm Allison uttered after Manchester City were knocked out of the FA Cup by Fourth Division Halifax: "Losing this game may not be the end of the world, but it certainly feels an awful lot like it." A lot of Italians right now would say amen to that.