World Cup 2014: Why all England fans should support Italy
There are more reasons to get behind the Azzurri than it just helping England
If Italy win their next two games, England's World Cup destiny will effectively be back in their hands. Cesare Prandelli's team will be desperate to beat Costa Rica (ranked below Scotland in the Fifa rankings) in Recife today, which would virtually guarantee their progression to the knockout rounds. An Italy win means England would still have hope of a miraculous appearance in the last 16 going into the final group D fixtures on Tuesday. Whether or not Italy come to England's rescue however, there are plenty of reasons why Three Lions fans should be getting behind the Azzurri.
Heartbreak, but also joy
The dizzying highs and crushing lows of supporting your team are the lifeblood of football and even more so at the World Cup, but England fans have only known the latter for coming up to half a century. Italy have experienced plenty of heartbreak on the world stage, from being edged out in the semis on home soil in 1990 to a distressing final defeat - on penalties - four years later.
But in 2006, the relatively unfancied Italians won the tournament for the fourth time, putting them behind only Brazil in terms of overall wins. There is much in the make-up and experiences of the Italian fan for his or her English counterpart to identify with, from penalty shootout disasters to highly rated teams failing to deliver. But what sets the Italians apart is that, every decade or so, you have something tangible to joyously celebrate. Imagine experiencing your country winning the World Cup, rather than actually, well, imagining it. By supporting Italy this can be a realistic prospect.
Star players, star quality
From Paul Gascoigne to David Beckham and most members of the Golden Generation to Wayne Rooney, English fans and the press have a complicated relationship with the team's supposed best players, who invariably fail to deliver on the biggest stage despite or perhaps because of their inflated egos and extracurricular activities.
But in Italy, the opposite is true.
In a narrative that is almost too good to be true, Paolo Rossi arrived at the 1982 World Cup on the back of a two-year ban over a betting scandal and made little impact as the team scraped through the group stages to set up a quarter-final with Brazil, the overwhelming favourites to win the tournament with players such as Socrates, Zico and Falcao among their ranks. But Rossi came alive, scoring a stunning hat-trick as Italy won 3-2. He would go on to score two goals in the semi-finals against Poland and then one of his team's three goals in the final against Germany. A World Cup and the Golden Boot after not playing a competitive match for two years - it was as one Italian journalist said at the time as if Rossi had come back from the dead.
While we're on the subject of star players, it would be remiss to neglect Andrea Pirlo. The veteran midfielder attracted more column inches in the English press than any other rival player at the World Cup, but he justified the hype with a man-of-the-match display as England were beaten 2-1, just failing to cap it off with an impossible looking free-kick in the dying minutes that crashed off the crossbar and left Joe Hart looking as if he had lost his mind. Pirlo has been there and done that but is still at the top of his game at the grand old age of 35. His equivalent in the English team, meanwhile...
The madness/genius of Balotelli
Remember the halcyon days of Gazza in his pomp? Rooney may be a similar build and (on paper, anyway) be similarly gifted, but since 1990 no English player has managed to combine technical brilliance with madcap humour and general unpredictability. Italy has its version of Gazza, and his name is Mario Balotelli, who delivers on the pitch with crucial goals but also finds the time to plaster a sticker album with his face, reimagine the World Cup trophy with him centre stage, pledge to help England qualify if he gets a kiss from the Queen, and even portray himself as Christ the Redeemer, watching over Rio. Self-doubt is not a word in the lexicon of the Italian team.
And as this much retweeted tweet shows, there is just no comparison. Forza Azzurri.
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