Italy aiming to rebound

GARETH WHEELER, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 12:36 PM ET

Bring on 2010.

No offence to 2009, but 2010 sets up to be a banner year for soccer.

The African continent hosting the World Cup for the first time will be front and centre, as world champion Italy looks to defend its crown.

But a subpar 2009 for Italian soccer raises questions how it'll fare come South Africa.

An unconvincing, yet undefeated World Cup qualifying campaign eased some concerns, following Italy's Euro 2008 disappointment, but did nothing to put it in the same conversation as the other tournament favourites.

Skepticism toward Italy's chances comes from its own lofty expectations, coupled with disappointing performances by Italian club teams in Europe and a lack of standout performances by Italian players.

The soccer world is funny; there are ebbs and flows in the game. One nation will be seemingly unstoppable for a period of time, while another powerhouse will struggle. It just happens. The past couples years have seen Italy and its club teams take a step back while other nations have taken the spotlight.

Spain now sets the standard, not only putting together a perfect World Cup qualifying campaign on the heels of its Euro 2008 win, but also boasting the world's top club team in Barcelona, winning all six trophies it competed for in 2009.

And in England, the consistency of its club teams speaks volumes. This year was the third straight Champions League season three English teams reached the semifinals. If success at club soccer sets the tone for International competition, there's a lot to like about England's chances in South Africa.

This year's FIFA's World XI (the best player at each position selected by professional players worldwide) didn't include any Italian or Serie A players. All the players making the year-end list either played in the English Premier League or La Liga.

From 2005-07, no fewer than four Italian players or players in Serie A made the World's top XI, speaking to the prestige and notoriety once associated with playing in the Serie A just a short time ago.

Of course, there's an arbitrary and subjective element to the selections, but aside from Gianluigi Buffon widely acknowledged as the world's top goalkeeper, it's hard to make the case for anyone else.

The great Italian players from recent years, such as Fabio Cannavaro, are getting old in the legs. Young talent is not developing at the rate or to the level of star players playing in or born in other countries.

That's not to say emerging Italian talent isn't there. All you have to do is look at Genoa, Roma or Napoli. The success of these teams, featuring primarily Italian talent, has created great parity (only five points separate fourth to 13th place in Serie A) that bodes well for the players and the product.

But the development hasn't translated yet on to Europe's biggest stage or competitions. This past year was the worst possible for Italian club teams in Europe, with not one Italian team advancing to the quarterfinal of Champions League. That record is simply not good enough.

But with Italy's historic ability to rise to the occasion despite the odds, it's a good bet to see Italy and its league re-establish itself as a global power as we begin a new soccer chapter in a new year and a new decade.

GARETH.WHEELER@SUNTV.CANOE.CA


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