What Inter Milan Tells Us About Italy’s World Cup Chances

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Tuesday’s appointment of former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez to run Italian treble-winners Inter Milan confirms a trend that signals a problem for Italy’s national team: Last season, under Portugal’s Jose Mourinho — now off to head up Real Madrid — Inter won all there was to win: Italy’s league title and domestic cup competition, and, of course, the European Champion’s League. But the fact that Inter conquered all of Europe was cold comfort for Italy’s national team: There was not a single Italian in the Milan team that kicked off the Champion’s League final against Bayern Munich last month, and Mourinho was the only foreign coach in the league. Spaniard Benitez takes over a team that started its most important game of the season fielding four Argentinians, three Brazilians, a Cameroonian, a Dutchman, a Rumanian and a Macedonian. Only half of the full first team squad of their city rivals, AC Milan, is Italian, while Roma, who finished second in the league, have Italians comprising less than half of its 32 man roster. Is Italy starting to mimic England, in whose top teams English players have become increasingly scarce.

So what are the implications for the Azzurri? Their current World Cup squad is composed largely of players you saw at the last World Cup, and many at the one before that. Buffon in goal is 32, although Dino Zoff proved you can keep goal for Italy into your forties. The defense is built around 36-year old Fabio Cannavaro and 33 year-old Guinluca Zambrotta, with Chiellini and Criscito providing the youth. Key men in the midfield include Rino Gattuso (32), Andrea Pirlo — the 31-year-old all-important playmaker who may be out injured — 33-year old Mauro Camoranesi, and Daniel De Rossi (26). The new boy who could make a name for himself is Fiorentina’s Riccardo Montolivo (25). Of their first choice strikers, Gilardino is 27, Iaqinta is 30, di Natale is 32 and Quagliarella is 27. The average age of Italy’s entire squad is 28.2 years.

You could argue that the current squad has the skill and experience of winning to do it all again. And Brazil, many punters’ favorite to win the tournament, actually has an even older squad, average age 28.6 years. (England’s is 27.5 years, but Spain’s is 26.) But the fact that Italy’s strongest club now routinely starts with no Italian players, and the fact that very few Italians play in Europe’s other elite leagues (Spain and England), certainly raises the question of whether Italian football is facing a long-term decline.