Criscito, finito: Match-fixing probe claims Italy’s starting left back

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Alternate title: 2006 does not apply

Domenico Criscito, one of Italy’s projected starting XI at Euro 2012 (and a target of the country’s latest match-fixing probe), has been forced out of the country’s squad of Euro 2012. So yeah, this is a big deal.

How big is this Italian match-fixing probe getting? Aside from the list of prominent names being arrested in conjunction with the investigation (including Juventus head coach Antonio Conte), the controversy’s compelled James Richardson to write.

The host of the internet’s “it” podcast (The Guardian’s Football Weekly) usually confines his benign musings to audio or video. This week, the former Football Italia host has deemed Italy’s latest crisis sufficiently important to take to a keyboard. Groovy.

By “latest crisis”, I mean to allude to 2006. In the middle of calciopoli, Italy won World Cup 2006. If you bleed Azzurri blue, you might look at that data point and suggest Italy plays its best soccer under fire. Bring on the investigation, somebody (somewhere) is saying. Our team plays better when they’re under pressure.

To which I’d retort: “What team?”

In soccer years, it’s been a long time since Italy was good. How long? Well, way back when Italy was a factor at major tournaments (2006), Zinadine Zidane was still playing. Michael Owen had just returned from Real Madrid, Manchester City’s top scorer was Andy Cole, and Giuseppe Rossi had just debuted … for Manchester United.

Since 2006, it’s been all downhill for the four-time world champions. They barely make it out of what was ultimately (and surprisingly) a bad group at Euro 2008. They didn’t make it out of their group in World Cup 2010, and drawn in the same group as Spain, Croatia and Ireland, there’s a good chance they won’t get out of their group in Euro 2012.

Head coach Cesare Prandelli has no choice but to select an unremarkable collection of talent that reflects a stoic period in Italian player development. Perhaps in Brazil the likes of Mario Balotelli and Sebastian Giovinco will be the finished product. In Poland, their most accomplished attacker is 34-year-old Toto Di Natale (10 goals in 36 appearances).

At best, Italy is an underdog to beat out Croatia (who has never lost to Italy) for Group C’s second quarterfinal spot. Even if we factor in a “coming together” factor, they still look like a team riding an expired reputation. Unless Slaven Bilic’s Croatia plays to his country’s unreasonably low expectations, Italy’s in line for another major competition disappointment.

And all that is before factoring in yesterday’s news. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Domenico Criscito, who has spent over two years as Italy’s first choice left back, was forced to pull out of the squad after his room was searched by police in an early Monday raid. You can’t help but feel that were he not part of the team slatted for Euro 2012, he might have been arrest. With Criscito’s Genoa home also combed-over by authorities, it may only be a matter of time (part of the reason for withdrawing).

According to the Italian soccer federation (the FIGC), Criscito’s maintaining his innocence. He’s also sorry about the distraction he’s brought the team, part of an obligatory response. What’s he supposed to say? That the team thrives amid controversy? And he’s going the squad a service?

Best case scenario, for Italy: Criscito is as innocent as he claims, and his absence ends up being inconsequential. No team wants to lose a starter, but Italy’s got options. Giorgio Chiellini is a natural central defender, but he’s coming off a great year on the left for Juventus. The team also has Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti, one of Serie A’s best left backs. Are either of them Criscito? Over Italy’s three crucial group stage games, there may not be a difference.

The distraction of Criscito, however, could have taken the team down. The margins are so thin for Italy, a team that will have to break their Croatia cruse if they’re to make the quarterfinals. Having Criscito around may have provided a slight benefit on the pitch, but off the field, it could have undermined the entire tournament.

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