Italy adamant in the face of criticism

Italy's Gianluca Zambrotta attends a news conference in Irene, June 10, 2010. (REUTERS/Stefano...

Italy's Gianluca Zambrotta attends a news conference in Irene, June 10, 2010. (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:23 PM ET

RUSTENBURG -- It is time to put up or shut up for defending world champion Italy.

Italy opens defence of their 2006 World Cup title Monday in Cape Town against Paraguay.

The game will probably seem a lot easier for Italy than what they have had to endure in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The Italians have been battered, criticized and given up for dead by many pundits and fans.

They’ve been given miniscule chance of repeating their 2006 feat.

The Italians have been called too old and too slow. They’ve suffered through an unimpressive preparation for the tournament and they have suffered some key injuries.

The latest is midfielder Daniele De Rossi who suffered a calf strain and may not play against Paraguay. The most serious is to key midfielder Andrea Pirlo. His muscle injury may cause him to miss the first two group stage games.

For a team that seriously lacks for inventive, proven, offensively-gifted midfielders, Pirlo’s loss is like a kick in the stomach. Italy is fortunate it wasn’t worse. Otherwise, it would have been hard pressed to score in the group stage.

Through it all, Italy is adamant in the face of the criticism.

"We aren’t old, we’re experienced" and "we won’t listen to the criticism and won’t be affected by it" are two of the most oft-repeated phrases.

Now they get a chance to prove that’s indeed the case, to walk the talk and all those other good sayings reserved for teams no one really believes can do it.

The problem is the Italians have been flayed so frequently that appearing confident is difficult even in their own camp.

At a pre-game press conference, Fabio Cannavaro sounded like someone who had seen the future and the future was not good.

“I am very confident - but I don't know why,” said 36-year-old defender and Italian team leader.

That’s not good.

“The friendlies weren't as good as four years ago so people are skeptical,” he said. “Maybe we don't have a star like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney. We can't play like Brazil, Spain or Portugal.”

That’s even worse.

Doesn’t that kind of comment want to make you go out and bet the mortgage on the defending champs?

The predominant emotion with Italians right now is fear.

That would be fear that everything most people are predicting about Italy is true and the fear that the Italy last seen in Africa at the Confederations Cup a year ago is the Italy everyone will see at the World Cup.

That would provide disastrous results for the Azzurri.

The Italians are fortunate. They drew Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia in their group. Paraguay may be the toughest of the three, but none provide the kind of team makeup that will really trouble the Italians.

Teams with pace and flow will spin the Italians like turnstiles at an amusement park.

A day before the game and Lippi is still experimenting at the back, moving defenders into new positions.

The opener of the World Cup is an odd time to be experimenting.

But no matter how grim it looks for Italy, it is still world champion until dethroned.

The Italians are difficult to kill off. During their 2006 World Cup run, there were many times when it appeared they were done but someone always managed to make a big save or score a big goal.

It is when everyone expects the least from the Italians that they managed to rise to the occasion.

This should suit the Italians just fine -- it’s hard to imagine there being a time when anyone expected less from them.


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