It was strange last week to leave behind the flag-smothered pubs and cars of England and arrive in Italy, where you could almost be forgiven for forgetting the World Cup was on at all. One of the local bars has a big(ish) screen outside, but there are no feverish announcements about when Italy is playing. Gaetano, the caretaker at the nearby five-a-side pitch, was raking up the cut grass on Saturday morning in a Brazil shirt. ‘No one likes the Italians this year,’ he said. Because they’re unlikely to retain the trophy? ‘It’s like watching dead men play.’ He made some polite murmurs about England’s chances (this was before the dismal draw with the USA), but said he thought Germany would probably win (this before their 4-0 crushing of Australia).
The front page of today’s Gazzetta dello Sport carries the stern pronouncement ‘Azzurri ricordate: i Campioni siamo noi’ – a reminder to the players that we are the champions, and so they’d better not screw up. The problem – beyond the fear of a humiliating first-round exit – is that 14 members of the Italian squad didn’t play in Germany four years ago, and so there really isn’t any sense in which the players in South Africa are the defending champions. It’s true that a team’s identity has little to do with the individuals on the pitch, but in this case it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the fans, either, if only because Italy at the moment has no fans. There certainly aren’t any in South Africa, or none that La Repubblica’s correspondent could find in advance of tonight’s game against Paraguay (though he also talks about Wayne Rooney’s ‘cockney accent’ so perhaps he’s not entirely to be trusted). And all anyone’s interested in talking to him about is Marco Materazzi, the ‘hero’ of the 2006 final. Materazzi, as it happens, is as ostentatiously uninterested as the next man: he’s currently on holiday, touring America in a camper van.