Thursday, 15 November 2007

Death overshadows Azzurri build-up

Italy's preparations for the crunch Euro 2008 qualifier against Scotland at Hampden Park have been as meticulous as you would expect from a team as disciplined as the Azzurri.

The squad has been together since Monday, training and relaxing together at the Coverciano headquarters on the outskirts of Florence.

The players are in no doubt as to the seriousness of the job in hand. They know a defeat in Glasgow on Saturday all but ends their hopes of being in Austria and Switzerland next summer and they have absolutely no intention of being in that position.

The problem for the Italian players is they are not being allowed to focus on their task because of an issue of far greater consequence than a mere football match.

The Italian media conferences have centred almost exclusively on the scourge of football-related violence that once again reared its ugly head last weekend.

The fact it took the death of Lazio supporter Gabriele Sandri - killed by a police bullet - to bring this to the fore is a sad indictment on the authorities, by which I mean the Italian Football Association (FIGC) and the country's politicians, though the media themselves cannot be excused.

Over the past three days, the Italian coach Roberto Donadoni, and players including Fabio Cannavaro, the captain, and Luca Toni have all spoken about the poisonous by-product of Italian football.

They have been unanimous in their condemnation of the culture of violence that seems to haunt the game here, though clearly it is far from being a uniquely Italian problem.

They, along with the FIGC's President Giancarlo Abete, have stressed that it cannot be allowed to continue.

It is hoped that this time the football and political authorities tackle the issue seriously, to avoid such a famous footballing nation falling forever into disrepute.

It is difficult to know exactly what effect this barrage of questioning on such an emotive subject has on the players.

Professional footballers are paid - handsomely at that level - to concentrate purely on getting results on the pitch, but that is to assume these people are automatons, incapable of caring what happens off the pitch.

Then again, perhaps they are able to switch off as soon as the media have put away the microphones and go back to the business of winning football matches.

Thus far, it has been a rather strange experience to be around the Italian national team at a time of great sadness, but also, without wishing to sound glib, great importance as far as football is concerned.

During those news conferences with Cannavaro and Toni, the only questions about Saturday's game seemed to come from Scottish journalists - in Florence to soak up the pre-match build-up from an Italian perspective.

On the issue of the game, the players also seem to have a collective belief - they can get a positive result in Glasgow.

There is an air of confidence - not arrogance - that comes from being world champions, and they expect that, as much as their ability, to play a big role in collecting at least a point in Scotland.

I expect it might come as something of a relief to the players to finally get across to Scotland on Friday.

Surely then, everyone's attention will be on the game.

Nonetheless, one must hope that the other matter is not then swept under the carpet, to be swiftly forgotten until the next tragedy.

Source: Alasdair Lamont (BBC)

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