Newspaper article International New York Times

Italy's Never Boring, Always Beautiful Soccer ; Italy's Best Performances Have Come in the Wake of Defeat and Scandal

Newspaper article International New York Times

Italy's Never Boring, Always Beautiful Soccer ; Italy's Best Performances Have Come in the Wake of Defeat and Scandal

Article excerpt

The national team's best performances have always come in the wake of defeat, disaster and scandal.

Some people party too soon. I was in Brazil in spring 2006, and Brazil was in a festive mood. The World Cup in Germany was on the way, and Brazilians, rightly convinced they had the best team, were already celebrating their triumph. At one public event, I said: "Just calm down, please. Italy is going to win this one." The audience chortled, saying: "Come on. Italian soccer is in the midst of its biggest scandal ever. Two championship titles have been revoked. The players are in shock, and the clubs are in disgrace!" That's why, I said.

All right, I was lucky. But there was method to my prediction. When the Azzurri are on edge and feel they have something to prove, they deliver. When they ease off, they're useless. Italy's worst performances in the World Cup have been preceded by great expectations: Germany in 1974, after reaching the final in Mexico; Mexico in 1986, after winning in Spain; South Korea and Japan in 2002, after doing well in Europe; and South Africa in 2010, after arriving as champions. Italy's best performances have come in the wake of defeat, disaster and scandal.

That is why things are looking good for Brazil 2014. Italian soccer has been faring badly in Europe, and clubs seem to be in thrall to hooliganism and bad debts. The soft-spoken coach Cesare Prandelli had to swallow his pride when he called up Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini, who was ejected for a nasty foul against Roma. Soccer purists are furious, Prandelli is annoyed, and the Italian sports authorities are embarrassed. So far, so good.

In soccer as in life, we Italians tend to do best when our backs are against the wall. In economics, politics and ordinary life, Italy needs to be smarting, and maybe a little scared, to get cranked up. In the past three and half years, we have produced four prime ministers -- the latest an inexperienced 39-year-old -- and lashings of economic angst. …

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