Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Italy's camp relatively tranquil this time around

ROME (AP) - Two years ago, Italy prepared for the World Cup with a match-fixing scandal engulfing the national game.

The biggest distraction in training for this year's European Championship so far came when two scantily clad women invaded the Azzurri's practice field in Florence.

"Compared to when we prepared for the World Cup, there's a different feeling in the air. There's more respect for this team, which is also now more knowledgeable and responsible," goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said Tuesday.

"And as far as the public's opinion, I see more serenity and participation. Only the hunger for victories and the desire to surprise are the same as two years ago."

In the 2006 training camp, there were public calls for coach Marcello Lippi to resign and for Fabio Cannavaro to give up the captaincy due to their associations with Juventus, the team at the heart of the scandal. Buffon, another Juventus player, also faced criticism.

But Lippi, Cannavaro and Buffon didn't budge, and their leadership provided the backbone for Italy's fourth World Cup title, with some unexpected help from Fabio Grosso and Marco Materazzi.

"What I, Cannavaro, Grosso and Materazzi did at the World Cup will be difficult to repeat, but we're here to try, hopefully with help from the rest of the team," Buffon said.

At the World Cup, the only goal Buffon allowed in seven games during regular play was an own-goal by Cristian Zaccardo, who has since been dropped from the team.

Cannavaro earned the Golden Ball award for his performance at the tournament in Germany. Materazzi tied for the team lead with two goals after taking over for the injured Alessandro Nesta, and goaded Zinedine Zidane into head-butting him. Grosso was decisive against Australia and Germany before converting the final kick of the penalty shootout in the final against France.

Italy will face France again at Euro 2008, in the final group game June 17. The two soccer powers also met twice in qualifying, with France winning in Paris and the teams drawing 0-0 in Milan.

"It's an infinite game of chess between us and the French," Buffon said. "We're both attentive and never leave ourselves unguarded, looking for the opponent's weak point - just like in chess."

The Azzurri's opening games are against the Netherlands on June 9 and Romania four days later.

"All the opponents in the group are strong. In some senses, the European Championship is more difficult than the World Cup," Buffon said. "In a competition like this (with 16 teams as opposed to 32 at the World Cup) there can always be surprises, like (1992 champion) Denmark and Greece in the past."

Italy drew against Denmark in its opening game at Euro 2004, which was won by Greece.

The Azzurri are attempting to become only the second team to win a World Cup and European Championship back-to-back after France, which pulled off the double in 1998 and 2000.

"We're starting off this competition as the favorite," Buffon said. "It's definitely not going to be easy."