ROME – When Italy clinched World Cup victory in 1982 their superstar goalkeeper Dino Zoff became the oldest player ever to lift the trophy at the age of 40.
In an interview, Zoff tells AFP how he is planning on watching this year's World Cup, which he says without Italy just doesn't feel like the real deal.
Q: How did you feel when Italy lost to Sweden in the World Cup qualifiers?
A: "I was at home with my family. And it was hard, of course, Italy hadn't missed out on a World Cup for 60 years. When you look at the teams that qualified, some do not have our trophies, our history. Having been in the national team for so long, it hurts. It's not normal for Italy to have to watch a World Cup from the sidelines. It just doesn't feel like a World Cup. People in Italy are very attached to football and they will still follow it. But it might be tough to watch a little-known side play while our team, which has carved its name into footballing history with four World Cup titles, stays at home."
Q: What does the World Cup mean to you?
A: "For me there is nothing greater, it's everything, pure joy. To reach the highest heights of your profession, at the age of 40 and as team captain, was just a rush of happiness. It was the highlight of my career because the World Cup is the highlight of football."
Q: Italy is down at number 20 in the FIFA rankings, how do you feel about that?
A: "Out of the World Cup, down at 20 in the rankings... I don't like talking about my era, but we were always among the best. It's a bad sign for Italian football"
Q: But at club level your teams play well...
A: "Yes but with a lot of foreign players. We must rebuild our national team and we do have some young talent, even if there are not that many of them. A generation of players is winding down and we must start believing in our future potential. In 2006, Italy won the World Cup by the skin of its teeth. But it was a great generation of footballers. When I was coach, I also oversaw a great generation in 2000: we almost won the Euros. Now we must wait and work on our young players, as they are our future."
Q: We often hear how Italy is obsessed with tactics, and that the young players don't work enough on technique...
A: "I don't like fundamentalism. Technique, tactics, physical fitness, you have to develop all that in young players. But above all, up to a certain age, they must be allowed to be free. Sometimes you get the impression that these young footballers are being raised like chickens in a battery farm. A child needs space to develop, not to be tied down with strict rules. We should make them play more, including at school. But, nowadays, how many times a week can a child go to football training? Once, twice? There are classes, English lessons, all that. It's a lot harder than it was before."
Q: So do you think that the situation has changed since your era?
A: "We weren't better and we didn't work differently but the conditions were more favourable. You can't just let a child go and play alone in the garden or in the street for hours anymore. And you can't compare three hours of football training a week to seven, 14 or even 21... in my day we played eight hours a day, from 1pm until dinner."
Q: Is it a structural problem?
A: "We have the structures but we have fewer players. In my region (Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy), each village had a team. Now they have to group the villages together to make a team. There are fewer children being born, fewer players and more opportunities to play other sports."
Q: But is the status of football under threat?
A: "Italy is a footballing nation, because we have a strong tradition. It is deeply-rooted, we have won World Cups, Euros. It's a simple, people's game, all the characteristics that keep it the sport that counts."