Prandelli's 'new-Italian' approach to reviving <i>Azzurri</i> divides nation

Coach's decision to follow in Germany's multi-ethnic footsteps by picking foreign-born players stirs controversy and faces a litmus test in Dortmund tonight

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There is a dateline to conjure with as Germany and Italy converge tonight. The venue is Dortmund, the city where the nations clashed and where the Italians triumphed so famously in the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup. Their fortunes have diverged almost as spectacularly in the five years since and now Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach, is seeking to drag his nation back among the elite, in what he considers to be the German way.

Just as Joachim Löw's thrilling young team of the 2010 World Cup was built around a willingness to draw players of multi-ethnic origins to the cause of Die Mannschaft, so Prandelli is looking to those he has described as "the new Italians". On that sultry June night in 2006, the only hint of Italian multi-ethnicity in Marcello Lippi's side was the Argentine-born Mauro Camoranesi, out on the right wing, but Prandelli, who is still not overwhelmed with selection dilemmas as he seeks to rebuild his nation's battered pride, turns to Thiago Motta, a Brazilian native, as his key midfield player.

The controversy surrounding the 28-year-old's call-up in Italy has been fuelled by Motta's flirtation with the Brazil national team. He played for Brazil's youth team at the age of 17 – permissible under Fifa rules – and represented his native country twice in an Under-23 side at the 2003 Concacaf Gold Cup tournament. Fifa has only just ruled this week that Motta may indeed switch nations for this debut.

Prandelli is unmoved by the murmurings of dissent. "I find it fantastic that players who aren't born in this country are demanding to put on the Azzurri shirt," he said earlier this week. "I call up those who deserve to be selected, and I'm rising above the tirades over the multi-ethnic make-up of the national team because those attacks do no good, not only for the image of our sport, but also for Italy."

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The crowd's reaction tonight, when Motta may shift from the midfield anchor's role he takes up at Internazionale to a role on the left of a midfield diamond, will be intriguing. Lazio's Cristian Ledesma, the Buenos Aires-born midfielder who only became another of Prandelli's "new Italians" when he had qualified by marrying an Italian, was booed when called up to face Romania last November. The Brazilian-born striker Amauri has suffered, too. "These things are not good for children who see them," Motta reflected yesterday. "I'm sorry because football should unite." He admits that while he knows the words of the national anthem Il Canto degli Italiani, he is not confident enough to sing them. "I don't know what they think in Brazil about this decision, but I don't think they consider me a traitor," he added.

Prandelli knows from the experiences of Camoranesi and Omar Sivori before him in the 1960s that success will answer the critics, though he is not entirely dispensing with the use of old Azzurri which made Lippi's charges appear such a worn-out bunch in South Africa. Also restored to the international fold is Gianluigi Buffon – back for the first time since injuring his back in Italy's opening World Cup game. Prandelli is likely to start with Milan's forward Antonio Cassano, preferring him in attack rather than the role he can take up behind the strikers as he considers him short of his physical best.

"It's true that it is no longer a team of big names, like in 2006, but the Italians will certainly be very organised and focused playing against us," the Germany team manager, Oliver Bierhoff, said yesterday. "We played a successful and inspiring World Cup and we've carried on with unbelievable maturity in European qualification. We shouldn't throw that away easily."

His confidence has good foundations. Germany are certainly still the ascendant nation of the two, with early qualification for the 2012 European Championship now a priority. They top Group A with maximum points after four games. Prandelli – whose midfield is likely to include an Alberto Aquilani reborn, having escaped Anfield for Juventus – is making progress, with three wins and a draw to lead Group C, though this evening carries a greater onus for him. The Italian nation sees it as the litmus test of how far he has come.

Five of the Borussia Dortmund players whose side lead the Bundesliga have been called up for the game by Löw, but they may have to bide their time as he wants a settled team for the rest of the campaign. The Germans do not lack incentive, though. When captain Philipp Lahm has spoken this week of a need to "break this Italy curse" he was talking of a miserable record against the Italians, who have not lost a competitive fixture to Germany for nearly 16 years. The last time Germany beat Italy was a 2-0 win in Zurich in June 1995 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Swiss Football Federation. "I want to break that record," Löw said. "You can see they are a team we have feared in the past and we want to continue last year's trend."

So, two nations with so much behind them and so much more to prove. The Signal Iduna Park stadium in Dortmund might not crackle with quite the sense of anticipation it did five years ago, but it is host to the main event of this evening.