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Italy Seeks Another World Cup
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 - The Italian national soccer team is never at a loss for the dramatic - and last week's World Cup qualifying matches were no different. With two games left in October, the Azzurri are still one or two points away from securing a spot at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. Last weekend's 1-1 tie with Scotland was a missed opportunity. The team made up for it by crushing Belarus with a 4-1 victory on Wednesday. Italy remains at the top of its group with a five-point lead over second-place Norway and a total of 17 points. But being the best during qualifications means nothing in a soccer-mad country. The only way to win respect will be to earn the Cup next summer.
The last time Italy managed this feat was in Spain in 1982. The closest the team came to winning again was the 1994 final in the United States that saw Italy face off against Brazil only to lose in overtime penalty kicks. The 1998 and 2002 World Cups were among the most disappointing showings in Azzurri history. In 1998, Italy lost in the quarter finals to France after another heart wrenching penalty kick shootout. It only got worse in 2002, when the team was knocked out in only the second round by underdog South Korea after a controversial red card on super star Francesco Totti. That's why Totti and the rest of the veterans - Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta - have much to prove when summer returns.
If last weeks' games provide any foreshadowing, however, then it will be the newer faces leading Italy to victory. Luca Toni, who just arrived in Fiorentina after a fabulous run with Palermo, scored a hat trick against Belarus. And Alberto Gilardino, despite having a rough time adjusting to life at his new club Milan, was his mighty assistant. An impressive Fabio Grosso scored the lone Italian goal against Scotland. Without the past constantly mocking them, nothing should stand in their way.
Whatever happens, first timers and veterans alike will have to face a critical public. And last week after the tie with Scotland, the critics were out in full force. In fact, the usually mild-mannered coach Marcello Lippi flipped his lid with cameramen filming him in the lobby of the team's hotel. Reportedly Lippi was having a heated discussion with the national team's public relations director when a RAI crew started taping them. Lippi used some tough language to get the cameraman to stop and later apologized. The pressure on the national team is so great that it can get even to the smoothest of men.
But Lippi regained composure and has had lots to say since the win over Belarus. After hearing that Scotland had beaten Norway 1-2 in the night's other qualifier he pointed out that Scotland had been a formidable opponent. "Have you seen what Scotland did?" he added, according to media reports. "They aren't as weak as everybody said after all."
When all is said and done, Lippi is a smart man. He's not letting one great victory against an underdog like Belarus go to his head. "I'm satisfied but I don't want comparisons made between ourselves and Brazil or any other nation," he recently has said. Brazil has won an unprecedented five World Cups. Italy has just three. Can you say "quattro"? Not just yet - but maybe someday!
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