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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Italy looking for smooth sailing in World Cup

If Marcelo Lippi wins a second consecutive title, he will do it with veteran players leading the way.

May 01, 2010|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

The old men and the sea.

That, with an earnest nod toward Hemingway, would be an apt title for a story on Italy's quest to retain the World Cup it won in Germany four years ago.

To understand why, let's travel to the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio and talk to one of its native sons, Marcello Lippi.

That's what FIFA.com did before Germany '06 and here is what Lippi, the coach of the Azzurri, said:

"I've told my friends to leave their boat engines running when we play those make-or-break matches. If we lose, I'll need to make a quick getaway and hide out at sea. If we win, going out in a boat will be an evocative and peaceful way to celebrate."

Italy did win, overcoming 10-to-1 pretournament odds and defeating France on penalty kicks in the final in Berlin to become world champions for a fourth time. Only Brazil, with five titles, has won more.

In the afterglow of victory, Lippi said that all he wanted was to go home to Viareggio and do a little fishing.

And yet, he is back, once again at the helm of the Italian national side and trying to become only the second man in soccer history to coach two winning World Cup teams.

It was another Italian who achieved that feat. Vittorio Pozzo coached Italy to victory in the 1934 World Cup in Italy and the 1938 tournament in France. In between, Pozzo — like Lippi 70 years later — had success in Berlin, coaching the Azzurri to the soccer gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games.

Lippi, 62, who won world, European and five Italian championships with Juventus, already has overtaken Pozzo in one category. During qualifying for South Africa 2010, he broke Pozzo's record of 30 consecutive unbeaten games in charge of Italy.

"I am really happy with this," he said at the time. "But what's important is that we won the World Cup during that time, otherwise the record would have been worthless."

As it turned out, Lippi's record stretched only to 31 consecutive unbeaten games and was brought to a crashing halt when his team was shut out by Brazil in a friendly in London in February 2009.

That defeat was followed by losses to Egypt and Brazil, again, at the Confederations Cup in South Africa last year, failures that brought loud calls for Lippi to inject youth into his aging team.

As always, Lippi was unmoved.

"I'm not letting go of my old boys," he told RAI, Italy's state-owned broadcast company. "It's not as if Brazil or Spain has an average age far inferior to ours.

"I probably won't have them in the side when they are going gray. But, for sure, we will do far better than most with them at next year's World Cup."

If Lippi sticks with what got him there, as expected, Italy will have the oldest squad at South Africa 2010.

After Italy flopped at Euro 2008 under Roberto Donadoni, Lippi was brought back and the team did not lose a single game in World Cup qualifying, going 7-0-3. The Azzurri are ranked fifth in the world by FIFA.

All the same, the leading warhorses in the stable are all in their 30s, including defender Fabio Cannavaro, FIFA's world player of the year in 2006, who is 36.

Then there the likes of Gianlucca Zambrotta, 33, Mauro Camoranesi, 33, Luca Toni, 33, Francesco Totti, 33, Fabio Grosso, 32, Gennaro Gattuso, 32, Andrea Pirlo, 31, and Vincenzo Iaquinta, 30.

Gianluigi Buffon is 32, but that's young for a goalkeeper, especially one regarded as one of the world's best. The trick for Lippi is to get some younger legs in the outfield.

He does have the likes of defenders Giorgio Chiellini, 25, and Davide Santon, 19, influential midfielders Daniele De Rossi, 26, and Riccardo Montolivo, 25, New Jersey-born forward Giuseppe Rossi, 23, forward Fabio Quagliarella, 27, and striker Alberto Gilardino, 27, but he has so far rejected calls for others to be considered.

The problem is, Lippi is not an admirer of players who admire themselves. As he recently told the Milan sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, "I don't want roosters in the chicken coop."

Nor does Lippi sound overly impressed by Brazilian-born forward Amauri, 29, of Juventus. Amauri became an Italian citizen this month specifically for a shot at making the World Cup roster.

"This does not mean he will be called up," Lippi said. "He will be followed like all the other players."

Can Italy win it again? Can Lippi match Pozzo and win a second World Cup?

"I don't see why I can't do that," he told FIFA.com in Johannesburg in March. "If we can apply everything we know out on the pitch, then we'll have the chance to show what we're capable of and go on and win the competition again."

And if not, well, Lippi can always go fishing.

As he told England's World Soccer magazine in 2007, "It's a good thing to have six months off every now and again."

So, no matter what happens in South Africa, Lippi will head back to Viareggio in July, at least for a while.

The old men move along. The sea will always be there.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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