While the senior national team shows signs of battling back from recent woes, the underachievement of youth level squads points to a worrying trend for the future of Calcio.
As Italy prepare to host Estonia in Modena on Friday with a commanding five-point lead at the top of their Euro 2012 qualifying group, one could be forgiven for thinking that the national game in the peninsula has quickly been turned around after last summer’s disastrous World Cup campaign. But Sunday’s 3-0 humbling by the Republic of Ireland at under-19 level was just the latest in a series of worrying results in the younger age groups that have suggested that there are reasons to be concerned about the future of the national team.
While it is not necessarily results that matter most at youth level, more the progression of top international players of the future, Italy has long had an impressive record in competitive tournaments at the younger levels. However, alongside a recent blockage of the supply line of top talent to the senior team has come a drop in representation at the major youth tournaments, with this summer set to be one of the quietest ever in Calcio.
Having somehow squandered a 2-0 first-leg lead to Belarus in October in their European Championship play-off, Italy’s under-21 side begin their participation in this year’s Toulon tournament on Wednesday when they could instead have been preparing to fly to Denmark for the bi-annual continental finals. Under Pierluigi Casiraghi, their Uefa campaign never really got off the ground after a slow start, and players such as Angelo Ogbonna, Andrea Poli, Vito Mannone and Stefano Okaka missed out on the opportunity to sample big-match finals football at the highest youth level.
But they aren’t the only ones who won’t be involved this summer. After this weekend’s heavy elite round defeat to Ireland, Daniele Zoratto’s under-19s will be watching July’s finals in Romania from their armchairs, while the under-17s missed out on this month’s Euros in Serbia after also falling in the final qualifying phase.
Individually too, there are few players really standing out from the crowd. Much was expected of the under-21 side that was unfortunate to lose to Germany in the 2009 Uefa semi-final, but so far only Andrea Ranocchia, Claudio Marchisio, Sebastian Giovinco and Mario Balotelli have threatened to have a real impact on the full national side, and there are various question marks over the international longevity of all four.
Following them, there appears few others ready to step up to the next level. Ogbonna has flattered to deceive at Torino this season, Poli has suffered in Sampdoria’s disastrous plummet, Mannone has been affected by uncertainty over his club future and latterly by thigh and shoulder injuries, and the likes of Okaka and Davide Santon - of whom much was expected after he burst into the Inter first team - have been unable to convince regularly either at their parent clubs or during loan spells.
There is growing talk over the potential stars of the future at lower levels, but while Diego Fabbrini and Stephan El Shaarawy continue to show decent progress in Serie B, Brescia’s much-hyped Lorenzo Tassi is still only 16, as is Federico Varano of Atalanta, another midfielder tipped for big things. Them apart, there are few players threatening to pull up any trees internationally just yet.
With gaps on show across the board at youth level and a blank calendar ahead between now and August, there is much work to do for the Italian FA’s technical co-ordinator Arrigo Sacchi and technical sector president Roberto Baggio. If the trend of failure continues on the scoreboard at youth level, there could be great questions asked as to the work being done throughout the national game. At a time when club football in the peninsula is taking a hit, Calcio can ill afford an international crisis too.