To get you ready for the drama that will start unfolding on June 11 in South Africa, The Star and The Full 90 will introduce you to the teams, the key performers, what to look for and what to expect in this year's Cup.Group F: The Group of Leisure. The only thing up in the air? Who finishes second behind the prohibitive favorite...
ItalyGroup F THE BASICS
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Azzurri (Sky Blues)
•How They Got Here:
Went undefeated in a European qualifying group that included the Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria
•World Cup Pedigree:
16 World Cups ('34, '38, '50, '54, '62, '66, '70, '74, '78, '82, '86, '90, '94, '98, '02, '06), winners four times ('34, '38, '82, '06), runners-up twice, third place onceTHE PLOT
Will the aging Azzurri find a fountain of youth to help them defend their World Cup championship?THE DIRECTOR
The Italian technician has seen success everywhere he's coached (both clubs and country) and will probably always be remembered for guiding the Italians to the '06 World Cup title despite the controversy and low-expectations that surrounded them. Many feel Lippi has been too loyal to his aging players and will suffer in this Cup.LEADING MAN
Gianluigi "Gigi" Buffon
The Juventus netminder is still amongst the world's best and will be tough to knockout if it comes to penalties. He's the rock in the back of the Italian defense and will almost surely finish the World Cup amongst the leaders in fewest goals allowed.SUPPORTING CAST
(midfielder, AC Milan) is the definition of a deep-lying playmaker who is blessed with a deft passing touch, superb vision and great hair;Fabio Cannavaro
(defender, Juventus) is the captain and anchors one of the strongest defensive teams in the Cup;Daniele de Rossi
(midfielder, AS Roma) a two-way midfielder with an excellent shot and thought to be the future of Italian soccer;Giorgio Chiellini
(defender, Juventus) missed out on the last World Cup and will be trying to show he belongs this time around;Alberto Gilardino
(forward, Fiorentina) with Totti and Toni not traveling to South Africa, it'll be on Gilardino to produce goals.LIKELY BREAKOUT STAR
It's easy to think of what have been. Rossi, a forward for Villarreal, was born and raised in New Jersey to Italian immigrant parents. He could've been (and probably would've been) the best American player ever. He'll have to settle for the best young Italian player going to the World Cup. The United States has, historically, had a lot of success keeping (or convincing) players with dual citizenship to play here. Among them: Carlos Bocanegra (Mexico), Herculez Gomez (Mexico), Jose Francisco Torres (Mexico), Earnie Stewart (Netherlands), Roy Wegerle (South Africa), Tab Ramos (Uruguay), Benny Feilhaber (Brazil), Ante Razov (Croatia), Thomas Dooley (Germany), Oguchi Onyewu (Nigeria), Freddy Adu (Ghana) and Jozy Altidore (Haiti). It just so happens this year, the two players who would've mattered the most in areas the U.S. needs the most (Rossi replacing Charlie Davies and Serbia's Neven Subotic in central defense) chose another route.THE LIKELY VILLAIN
He's a red card waiting to happen.PRODUCTION NOTES
Lippi will either set the Azzurri up in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2. The team will probably a more attacking style than you might think. But they're an older team and can't press the same way they'd probably like. Bringing in "younger" guys like Rossi and Gilardino should help.WHAT THEY'LL WEAR
IT'S SORTA LIKE...
Only, Italy suffers from far less Steve Guttenberg. (Hey, that's twice I've mentioned The Gutte in these previews. He's still relevant, believe me.)TRAILER
DO WHAT YOU WILL WITH THIS...
Italy leads the world in win consumption per person. (In other news, the sky is blue.)CRITICAL BLURBS
The defending champions might be old, but they've got the experience advantage. Most of the 2006 team returns for this Cup. ... Scoring might be an issue outside of Rossi. The Italians, of course, aren't really worried about scoring a ton of goals. Just one should suit them fine. ... Couldn't have been drawn into an easier group (It's the Group of Leisure!). Paraguay has an inexperienced international coach, New Zealand is qualifying for its first Cup this century and Slovakia has both of those problems. ... How do you say "cake walk" in Italian? ...Best-case scenario?
Another semi-final run. ...Realistic prediction
A loss to Spain the quarterfinals.POSSIBLE HOLLYWOOD MOMENT
The Italians seem to always benefit from their opponents imploding in big games. See also Zidane's headbutt in '06. Imagine what's going to happen in a highly contested and heated quarterfinal with Spain? I'm not even going to predict anything. Literally, I'd be ready for anything. A Fernando Torres headbutt. Xavi getting a straight red in the opening minutes. Cesc Fabregas switching allegiances and joining the Italians. David Villa missing a penalty. The entire Spanish team contracting a particularly nasty stomach virus 10 minutes before kickoff.
Group A: South Africa
Group B: South Korea
Group C: Algeria
Group D: Serbia
Group E: Japan
New Zealand, Slovakia, Paraguay, Italy
North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Brazil
Honduras, Chile, Switzerland, Spain
Sources: World Cup 2010 (by Steven D. Stark and Harrison Stark); ESPN and Soccernet.com; FIFA; CIA Factbook