Posted by: mdegeorge | June 24, 2010

The older they come, the harder they fall

Slovakia was good enough this morning to confirm a truth that has long been hidden under an increasingly thin veneer of marquee names and past glory: the Italian soccer system is in decline.

It’s not anything too alarming, except for the diehard fans. It’s just the periodic ebb and flow that all nations go through over the years—just ask Spain, which is on an historic upswing.

And while at least one half of this fluctuation is entirely normal, Italian football is to blame for making the transition as bumpy as it has been.

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Simply look at the crop of players between the ages of 31 and 37 on the Azzurri’s World Cup squad: Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso, Mauro Camoranesi, Gianluca Zambrotta, and Andrea Pirlo. Add in players in international retirement (to varying degrees) such as Massimo Oddo, Christian Panucci, Fabio Grosso, Alessandro Nesta, Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Toni, Francesco Totti, Marco Materazzi, Massimo Ambrosini, Simone Perotta, and Fillipo Inzaghi.

It’s a golden generation of Italian players that helped take home the World Championship four years ago. Their fade from the spotlight (with the exception of Buffon and Pirlo, who likely have at least one more major tournament, and possibly two or three for Buffon if injuries don’t intervene) was inevitable.

Where the Italian soccer program has failed is in ensuring the shelves were restocked with young talent to replace those riding off into the sunset. And that shortcoming has exacerbated and hastened the fall from grace.That lack of depth reared its ugly head most strikingly today against Slovakia. It’s now painfully obvious that at 36 years of age, the United Arab Emirates may be the only place Cannavaro can safely ply his trade. He’s a player who has contributed as much as any to the lineage of world class  defenders from the Italian peninsula. His performance four years ago in Germany was the best you’re likely to ever see from a defender and his absence from Euro 2008 was a big factor in the Italians’ futility.

Cannavaro was one of many Juventus player who could call 2009-10 a tough season in which the decline from the summit of his craft accelerated. But, there was no question that Marcello Lippi’s first choice defense in South Africa would include three members of the Bianconeri at its heart.

Cannavaro’s inclusion was just as much due to the lack of suitable alternatives as it was his own pedigree. The alternatives in defense, Leonardo Bonucci and Salvatore Bocchetti, brought a combined seven caps to the tournament. Even Cannavaro’s replacement at Euro 2008, Alessandro Gamberini, has appeared just twice over the last year and, even had he not missed three months and faced a race for fitness ahead of the Finals, probably wouldn’t have factored into the squad.

It’s an unfamiliar position for a nation so often stacked with a glut of decade-long stalwarts like Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Nesta, Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi, Panucci, and Ciro Ferrara, often at the expense of still other defenders who would have starred for almost any other nation.

Buffon’s back injury also exposed a flaw in the development system. Goalkeepers like Angelo Peruzzi, Francesco Toldo, and Morgan DeSanctis have languished on the bench, aging into oblivion behind Buffon for the better part of the last decade. Even those who have been drafted into the squad as young players, like Marco Amelia and Cristian Abbiati have yo-yoed between the bench and pitch at their club homes. The big clubs in Italy have opted primarily for Brazilian keepers, leaving Buffon’s stand-in Federico Marchetti to cut an optimistic yet unprepared figure.

So much of the blame belongs to clubs in Serie A, who seem unable or unwilling to allow young Italian talent come of age in their ranks. And the lion’s share of that fault falls on the Big Four clubs.

The teams that finished 1-2 in Serie A, Inter and Roma, counted just 15 Italian internationals among their ranks, just over 28 percent of their rosters. Of those 15, only seven were under 30 years of age. The other two members of the Big Four, Milan and Juventus, have maintained a high proportion of native-born players (around 56 percent each), but the majority are still older than 30. And we’ve seen their success in the domestic league and Europe of late. There are plenty of young players around, just not in the senior teams. Last season, the Big Four combined to send out 69 young Italian players on loan or co-ownership.

These clubs realize the shortcomings in the Italian youth development system, one that has yielded just two Under-17 and two Under-20 World Cup qualifiers out of 12 chances in the last decade. With the stakes of European soccer so high, management at these teams can afford to have other teams grapple with the growing pains while they reap the benefits of polished products down the road.

It’s a common practice, but it’s not a sustainable one for the league or its national team, as the mounting debt of around a half a billion dollars attests. More often than not, players are farmed out never to return. It makes sense for big teams to dump the risk on teams in lower divisions, paying them off with one dominant season before the player returns to the mother club. But for some players, Serie C1 isn’t the most conducive place for their development, at times consigning talent that could have been cultivated elsewhere to the trash heap. Each of the Big Four would count themselves fortunate to harvest three solid squad players from the crop of loanees.

And what happens when these young players don’t develop? Teams go looking for replacements in the transfer market, paying for an instant fix the amount that could sustain a youth team for a year—salaries, transfer fees, and all.

That strategy means the “stars” for the Azzurri are more spread out than ever. Look at the list of aging players from above. All 17 of those players, with the exception of Panucci, were members of a Big Four team last year. The World Cup squad, though, featured 12 players, over half, from outside the Big Four. That’s a third more than any other Italian squad for a major tournament in the last decade and a half (if you disqualify the 2008 totals due to the fallout from Juventus’ match-fixing scandal).

Udinese, a mid-table team even in the best years, has eight players taking part in the World Cup for any nation, just two less than Inter and one more than AC Milan.

The system is slowing the development of young Italian footballers and reducing their turns of service for the national team. It’s a large factor in why Italy has (had) one of the oldest squads in the tournament with an average age of 28. They had nine players under the age of 26 averaging 17 caps each entering the Finals. Both totals put them on the low end compared to their fellow UEFA nations.

The poster child for this phenomenon is Antonio Di Natale. He was a late bloomer, likely for a variety of reasons, and now just four years after his full debut for the national team, he’s already 32 and possibly on his last major tournament. “Young” players like Riccardo Montolivo, Simon Pepe, and Fabio Quagliarella are already 25, 26, and 27, respectively. Even stars of the future like Sebastian Giovinco and Guiseppe Rossi are already 23, the same age as established Spanish stars Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Ramos.

The Italians now face an uncertain and likely uncomfortable rebuilding period. One thing the Azzurri can always be counted on for is loyalty in squad selection, sometimes to a fault. But looking four years down the road, I see two certainties for the trip to Brazil: Daniele De Rossi (the likely next captain) and Giorgio Chiellini (one of his vice captains). Even Buffon’s spot as a 36-year-old has been cast into doubt at this juncture by the nature of his injuries.

Pepe, Montolivo, Claudio Marchisio, Mario Marchionni, and Gaimpaolo Pazzini have the potential to form a potent midfield unit, along with the possible development of Andrea Candreva and Giovinco. Quagliarella and Rossi still have some good days ahead of them, as do Alberto Gilardino, Marco Boriello, and, to a lesser degree, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Di Natale. Then there is the wild card, quite literally, of a player like Mario Balotelli.

But the backline, outside of Chiellini, is unsettled for the first time in years. Davide Santon has the chance to emerge, as do Domenico Criscito, Bocchetti, and Bonucci as they mature.

It has the makings of a strong nucleus for the next decade. But it hinges on a lot of ifs and will surely include more than its fair share of bumps still to come.

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