The Italy coach, Roberto Donadoni, knows that defeat against Scotland this evening and subsequent elimination from Euro 2008 – should other results go against Italy – will cost him his job. Even in normal circumstances, that would represent considerable pressure. But once again the Azzurri find themselves preparing for a critical game in circumstances which are far from normal, following the death last Sunday of a football supporter which sparked rioting in several Italian cities.
Luigi Spaccarotella, the police officer who shot the Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri, has been charged with murder, after initially being told he would face a charge of manslaughter. As a mark of respect for Sandri, no football will be played in Serie B and Serie C this weekend and Italy will play with black armbands. Away supporters will be banned at 15 matches next weekend, including fans of the Serie A clubs Atalanta, Roma, Catania, Milan, Sampdoria and Torino.
Uncorroborated eye-witness accounts claim that, far from being nice middle-class boys unwittingly caught up in a brawl, as initially suggested, the Lazio fans with whom Sandri was travelling had attacked a small group of Juventus supporters with knives, rocks and snooker balls.
Donadoni would rather have spent the week at Italy's training camp in Florence bringing his usual Zen-like calm to the world champions for Hampden. Instead, he felt forced to speak out – "because the nausea is so strong," about the violence. "Enough. We cannot be slaves or hostages. This is pure madness," he said. "When you see lads smashing up the perimeter screens [in football stadiums] and being photographed next to their trophy you understand something about today's values. I think about my son and what future awaits him."
Defeat will cost Donadoni his job, but accepting defeat "without turning it into a tragedy", he argued, must be the basis for rebuilding positive values in the Italian game. "If stopping football for three months was the solution I would sign up tomorrow, but isn't it better to reflect on what measures can stop all this?"
The cloud over Italian football has drawn comparisons with the build-up to last year's World Cup in Germany, when Italy's preparations were overshadowed by the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. The 44-year-old Donadoni finds himself at the helm of the national team as a result of that scandal.
Few can match Donadoni's record as a player. In two periods at Milan – from 1986 to 1996 and 1997 to 1999 – he won six Italian league titles and three European Cups. His CV as a coach, however, runs to three lines: a season at third division Lecco, a season at second division Genoa and two six-month spells with Serie A minnows Livorno.
His reign started badly. A 2-0 defeat in a friendly against Croatia was followed by poor results in Euro 2008 qualifiers: a nervy 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania and a 3-1 defeat to France. There were inevitable calls for his head. The new man refused to panic, gradually testing out formations and blooding new players to put together a string of victories which have put the team on Scotland's shoulder, requiring a point today and three on Wednesday against the Faroe Islands to qualify.
As Enzo Bearzot, the coach who led Italy to World Cup success in 1982, put it, "Donadoni's principal merit is that he never lost self-belief or enthusiasm, despite all the criticism. He has gone down his own road."
Italy will almost certainly start with a 4-3-3 formation, asking the wide attackers, Juve's Mauro Camoranesi and Udinese's Antonio Di Natale, to supply Luca Toni. Behind them will sit the Milan triumvirate of Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso. The full-backs Gianluca Zambrotta and Roma's Christian Panucci will take turns to push forward while Fabio Cannavaro of Real Madrid and Palermo's Andrea Barzagli man the centre of defence.
It is a line-up full of pace and technique with plenty of big-match experience, but the number of times this week that the players have reminded everybody that they are world champions suggests that there may still be some nagging self-doubt.Reuse content