'Moggi told us we will win'
HANOVER - One thousand kilometres away from the calcio scandal, although it takes less than two hours to fly from central Italy to Hanover, the Azzurri gave itself a huge push towards respectability with their win over Ghana.
World Cup opening matches have a tendency to spring surprises, especially when a traditionally good team meets a debutant, but in Italy's case the fear of the unknown was never going to be as strong as the chance to at last put the events of the past month, which may have changed the face of Italian football forever, behind.
The Ghana match proved to be a valve for discharging the tension, the nervousness, the acrimony and the boredom that had been building up in day after day of practice: listen to question, give standard reply, practice again, listen to a different question that sounds the same, give the same answer with different words.
Inside the Hanover Stadium, only a couple of banners reminded onlookers of what has been left behind, smouldering, in Italy: and one of them reassured the Azzurri, because (former Juventus general manager) 'Moggi told us we will win'.
Italians abroad are never the biggest travelling army you'll see, because club loyalty is so strong it sometimes fogs the sentiments of fans, and there's never going to be a mass exodus like the England supporters, rather a migration of individuals and groups of friends in search of some good, violence-free, pure football. But the blue contingent inside the stadium managed to keep a reasonably noisy level of support, although never close to Mexico's on Sunday or England the day before.
That their night ended with the loudspeakers booming a rendition of Azzurro, Adriano Celentano's most famous song, was only fitting, although 24 hours earlier Mexico had been greeted at the final whistle by... another great Italian song, Volare (actual name Nel blu dipinto di blu), whose link to the talented Central Americans eludes me.
Italian fans do not have a song specific to the national team: they're usually adapted from club songs, but most of them are so short and simple, not to mention old-fashioned, that one is truly inclined to believe in the fact the Azzurri draw a different, more family-oriented type of supporters from club sides.
Ghana were all but unknowns, of course: Appiah played for Brescia and Juventus and considers Marcello Lippi a mentor, Sulley Muntari has been at Udinese for a few years and Michael Essien's performances for Chelsea are on Italian satellite TV every week, so it was not like Italy were playing Haiti, like they did in 1974, when they got stung by a goal which at least jolted them into action and a 3-1 win.
Getting over first-day nerves and the fear of a false start with the tough matches still to come was huge for Italy and Lippi, whose calm demeanour in the post-match press conference spoke volumes about how he felt.
As Lippi put it, had Italy lost, their next match against the USA would have been 'very, very difficult'. A draw with Ghana would have made it only 'very difficult', whereas now no adverb is needed, it is simply going to be a difficult game, next Saturday in Kaiserslautern.
The final scoreline, 2-0, is a bit flattering to the Azzurri, who had their positives and their negatives from this opening match, so better clarity lets look at the good and the bad.
Positives• Andrea Pirlo looked much better than he had in the last part of the season with Milan. He directed play and conducted his usual clinic in how to position his body while receiving a pass in order to kick the ball with maximum effect and minimum effort. He intercepted more than his regular share of passes and, of course, opened the scoring with a shot from outside the area following a corner which Ghana failed to clear and then close down properly
• Nesta, more than captain Cannavaro, was a rock in central defence, his experience far more suited to this game than the Ghana forwards' youthful exuberance. He appeared to suffer no ill effects from the injury that had made his presence in the starting line-up doubtful until a couple of days before the game.
• De Rossi's push on Asamoah Gyan in the second half looked like a penalty to me. The Ghanaian's momentum helped him fall, but De Rossi clearly pushed him away from trouble with both hands, and that ref Simon waved play on obviously ranks as a positive for the Azzurri. In the other controversial moment inside the Italy area, though, Asamoha clearly dived. He, after all, has been studying for his diving certificate in the best possible place, Italian football, the Serie B, with Modena. You go to England to learn English, you spend time in Iran to learn tapestry, and you join an Italian team for diving lessons, even though the sea is one hour away.
• Toni and Gilardino did not score, but in the words of Pirlo their intelligent movement and their knack at switching positions and thus becoming moving targets helped the midfielders direct their passes more safely. Toni again showed why he's been a revelation in the last three years, with a control and right-footed shot on the run which hit the underside of the bar.
• De Rossi gave an assured performance, especially in helping take the heat off Pirlo, and displayed his game in a nutshell: strong tackling, a tendency to be a little over the top, a powerful shot, a knack for late runs into the area that allow him to use his other great asset as a strong header of the ball.
• Iaquinta scored his first goal for Italy and he clearly couldn't believe it. Neither did the fans and most of the media, who'd been puzzled by Lippi's decision to call up the Udinese striker, who's had a troubled domestic season, ahead of Livorno striker Cristiano Lucarelli. His introduction, replacing Gilardino, had drawn an unusually muted response from the Italy fans, a vastly different reaction from the huge cheer that erupted from the stands when Del Piero later replaced Toni. Iaquinta's claim after the match - no tongue in cheek could be detected, despite close inspection - that he could be 2006's version of Paolo Rossi is better left untouched, unless circumstances dictate otherwise. And I suspect they will.
Negatives• Italy allowed Ghana too many shots from outside the area, and must be thankful Essien and the other midfielders couldn't shoot straight, except for the Chelsea man's dipping shot which Buffon did well to palm away for a corner. When you consider the Czechs have Rosicky and Nedved, you know Italy must make a better job in this part of the field, where Ghana often employed one-twos to free one of their players for an unobstructed view at goal, albeit from afar.
• Zambrotta's injury meant Zaccardo started on the right of defence. He did a reasonable job, but his presence means the attacking burden on that side is left to Perrotta, who's had an excellent season for Roma doing just that - albeit from a more central position - but cannot match Camoranesi in that category, and once Lippi brought on the Juventus winger Italy had better chances on the right side, with Zaccardo staying at home.
• Italy could not put away the match until ten minutes were left, and great teams don't leave it until the end to do that.
• Francesco Totti's return to the starting line-up yielded the expected results: the Roma captain had some good passes, a couple of nice touches, a free kick from long distance that forced Kingston to make a difficult save and looked the part as the Messiah - only with shorter hair than we're used to - until fatigue and a kick in the left leg moved Lippi to replace him with Camoranesi, who took his place on the right side thus steering Italy from the 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-2.
Totti had a nice gesture at the end, consoling Roma teammate Kuffour after the Ghana defender's under hit back pass had allowed Iaquinta to pounce on it, round the goalkeeper, score and take a few moments before taking it all in. He then proceeded to mention that 1982 goalscoring hero. See, we never mention the war, but Paolo Rossi is a much nicer subject, isn't he?