Italy lack the world-class strikers of generations past
The great Gigi Riva turned 72 this week. One of the gifts he received couldn't be opened; it had to be played. Italy captain Gigi Buffon recorded a special video message for one of the greatest, if not the greatest striker to ever wear the blue shirt of Italy and it revealed the great affection and high regard he is still held in more than 40 years after his retirement from international duty.
"Hey Big Gigi," Buffon said, smiling. "Today's a special day. A legend is another year older. What can I say? I just want you to know that when I think about la Nazionale, the journey I've been on, the experiences I've had, you always come to mind. You have left me with so many great memories."
Riva was waiting for Buffon at Coverciano when he reported for his first call-up to the senior squad in 1997. He returned to the set-up as Italy's team manager before Italia '90; looking after the players, telling stories and reminding them what it meant to play for their country. It was a role Riva carried out with pride for close to quarter of a century and one he reluctantly relinquished only three years ago because the pain in his hip and back made all the travel too tiresome to contemplate.
The old guard miss his presence around Coverciano, his aura, his cool. Few people in their 70's could wear the old Italy uniform -- a black Dolce & Gabbana suit, midnight blue shirt and shades -- as well as Riva. He remains an icon not only for his immortal part in Cagliari's Scudetto in 1970 and his repeated refusal of offers to join the giants of the game in Italy, including an offer from his beloved Inter, in order to finish his career in Sardinia, but also for his status as Italy's all-time top scorer. Riva scored 35 goals in 45 appearances for the Azzurri, a record which has endured for nearly half a century, resisting the efforts of other great Italian centre-forwards to supplant him.
Of all the investments the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio are making to improve the football infrastructure up and down the country at the moment, a time machine to take Riva back to the days when Italy's most revered football writer Gianni Brera nicknamed him Rombo di Tuono or Roar of Thunder -- would be a luxury that coach Giampiero Ventura would feel no shame in using. Italy do not have a striker of the same pedigree and the lack thereof was already a talking point toward the end of Cesare Prandelli's time as national team coach.
Attempts were made to persuade Mauro Icardi to declare for Italy. Ditto Paulo Dybala. Patience was lost with Mario Balotelli who showed little inclination to maximise his talent and burned bridges with the group following the last World Cup. Giuseppe Rossi's knee and an inability to convince Marcello Lippi and Prandelli on the eve of major tournaments meant he never played in one for the Azzurri.
Players who had once been overlooked were suddenly taken into consideration. Antonio Conte capped Graziano Pellè at 29 and Brazilian-born Èder at 28. The forwards he took to the Euros last summer were compared unfavourably to the ones Italy took to the last major tournament held in France, the '98 World Cup. In terms of reputation, Pellè, Èder, Simone Zaza, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile did not measure up to Italy's '98 group of Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Enrico Chiesa.
In the end, it wasn't the problem some thought it might be. Pellè, in particular, proved one of the best strikers at the tournament not only for his goals, but due to his all-round game and dovetailed brilliantly with Èder. But the fact remains that of the players in the current Italy squad, Daniele De Rossi is the top scorer with 19 goals (no other has more than five). That is quite an astonishing feat in and of itself when you consider the position he plays and the strikers he is ahead of on the all-time list, as they include Luca Toni, Gianluca Vialli, Balotelli, Antonio Di Natale, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Giampiero Boniperti, Giuseppe Signori and playmakers like Gianni Rivera, Gianfranco Zola and Francesco Totti.
When it is put to Ventura that, unlike some of his predecessors, particularly Lippi and Conte, he has never won anything as a manager and doesn't have the credentials to lead Italy to a fifth World Cup win, he likes to point out that the players the Azzurri had in attack when they last won it a decade ago had more pedigree. "Toni was scoring 40 goals a year," he reminded La Stampa. "There was Totti, Del Piero, Inzaghi, (Alberto) Gilardino and (Vincenzo) Iaquinta was sixth in the pecking order. It was a different world."
While not spoilt for choice, the debate Ventura's selection decisions have caused would suggest it isn't limited either. Pellè has been excluded on disciplinary grounds after his petulant reaction to his substitution against Spain but Ventura insists the door is still open even though Italy's highest paid player now plays in the Chinese Super League. It has led to accusations of hypocrisy from supporters regarding Sebastian Giovinco who was overlooked again despite tearing it up for Toronto because MLS, in Ventura's opinion, doesn't matter much.
The absence of Balotelli's name from his 29-man squad also caused some befuddlement. Talk of a re-call was encouraged by Ventura and the team's senators during the last international break. It is odd then that there is no place for Balotelli, who has scored seven goals in nine games for Nice, while there is for Simone Zaza and Manolo Gabbiadini. The former is yet to open his account with West Ham. The latter can't get into the Napoli team. When Gabbiadini had to pull out, Ventura had the opportunity to welcome Balotelli back in from the cold. He elected to go with Milan's Gianluca Lapadula instead.
Lapadula's is a great Cinderella story. The son of a Peruvian mother who moved to Turin and married an Italian, he was playing in the third division at the time of the last World Cup. Top scorer in Serie B last season with 27 goals and play-off hero for Pescara, he got the winner for Milan at the weekend with his first touch; a crafty back-heel. However, it has not gone unnoticed that the 26-year-old has started just twice this season. Has he really done more than Balotelli to merit a call-up?
Less chatter surrounds Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile. Both scored in the helter skelter 3-2 win in Macedonia. Ciro turned hero with a couple of late goals to save the day and spare Italy's blushes. Now at Lazio, he looks back to the sort of form we saw at Torino a couple of years ago, which ended with him as the Serie A Capocannoniere and a move to Borussia Dortmund. Belotti meanwhile has drawn comparisons to Vieri and fancies himself to become the second Torino striker in four seasons to top the scoring charts in Italy.
In the longer-term, assuming Italy do get to Russia, the expectation is it will be Belotti and Domenico Berardi leading the line, although Ventura's decision not to call up the Sassuolo wunderkind for the last double-header of internationals, despite the tactical reasons given, was also met with incredulity. Berardi had scored seven goals in six games and is the most talented player of the next generation in Italy.
While Ventura sees Saturday's qualifier with Liechtenstein as a chance to experiment with a 4-2-4 and to give a number of young players their first taste of competitive international football at this level, the winning margin needs to be great bearing in mind Spain put eight past the minnows as this group could ultimately come down to goal difference. Ventura doesn't give the impression he believes Italy can hand out a thrashing of Spanish proportions. With Riva, maybe it'd be different.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.