Yes! Yes! Yes! The Azzuri are in the final after another 12-year wait!
I was predicting a 3-1 victory for the Italians. It ended 2-0. My prediction defied logic; however I'm not claiming that I got the result (and the goal difference) right. I rooted for an Italian victory, simply because they are my favourite team. As they have been since 1990!
The main reason was that this Italian side was unlike any Italian side since the one which set Italia '90 on fire, Salvatore Schillaci being the prima donna then. Since then, the Azzuri started losing their sheen, a World Cup final defeat to Brazil on penalties, a quarterfinal exit in 1998 (again on penalties) against France, another defeat to France in the Euro 2000 final (France came from behind to pull off a dramatic win in extra time) and a similar yet more ignominious defeat to Guus Hiddink's South Korea in the second round in 2002.
A squad which boasted of some of the best strikers in the world -- Alessandro del Piero, Christian Vieri, Roberto Baggio, to name a few -- resorted to playing the familiar "Let's settle for 1-0" game. Yes, defence has always been their strength, what with giants like Maldini, Nesta, Cannavaro, Baresi and a host of defenders of the who's who kind playing in front of excellent goalies like Pagliuca, Perruzzi and Buffon. And there were excellent midfielders too. And yet Italy had to do without any major trophy.
Cut to 2006. And there is a huge scandal facing Italian football. Clubs are threatened with a year's suspension. The Azzuri have a decent squad, and on an excellent run too. But no one takes them seriously. Weren't there some who expressed doubts if Italy could at all get to the next round?
The Times captures the scenario perfectly, in an article by one of their football correspondents. The scandal back home and the uncertainty about their future has created a kind of "ghetto mentality" in Marcello Lippi's men. The correspondent points to the celebrations on the bench every time Italy scores a goal. This mentality has pushed the players to go every possible step, chase every ball and outrun every opponent. After all, what good is any steel if it doesn't pass the test of fire?
True, the draw against the Americans raised questions. And the game against Australia... everyone will keep talking about it, more vehemently if the Italians win their next encounter in Berlin, this Sunday. But let us not take anything away from them. This World Cup has given undue attention to Ronaldo, Ballack and the sorry English side. The unsung heroes are Cannavaro, Pirlo, Gattuso, Matterazzi and company. They deserve not to lose.
One of Portugal or France will stand in the way of the Italians on Sunday. As for tonight's game, I think Portugal will nick it. Surely the man of the tournament thus far is Luis Felipe Scolari. And with the return of Deco, who will orchestrate the Portuguese midfield, and also given their attacking, physical and racy playing style, the Iberians have the edge. And this comes from a Francophile!