PRETORIA // The fear that South Africa might perform worse than any previous World Cup host has already been widely acknowledged, but in the wake of Italy's first round exit at the Confederations Cup, there must now be genuine concerns about how the world champions will perform next summer. The limitations of Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland mean Italy are likely to avoid the ignominy of being the first champions to fail to qualify, but there is a sense of staleness about the side that calls to mind France's struggles in 2002, when, as champions, they went out in the group stage having failed to score a goal.
Only in the final quarter of the opening game against the USA, when they overturned a 1-0 deficit to beat a side reduced to 10 men 3-1, have Italy looked anything like the team that triumphed in Germany in 2006. Sluggish against Egypt, they were humiliated in the first half against Brazil on Sunday. Going in 3-0 behind at the break represented their worst first half since a 6-1 defeat to Yugoslavia in 1957, and it could easily have been worse as Brazil sliced through them again and again, twice hitting the post and drawing one excellent save from Gianluigi Buffon.
Compared with Brazil and Spain - or even with Egypt - there has been a lack of dynamism about Italy in this tournament, which perhaps is not surprising given that six of Sunday's starting line-up were over 30. The 22-year-old forward Giuseppe Rossi, whose two goals against the USA made him one of Italy's very few positives, is optimistic the transition to a new generation is under way. "We have great players who are 30 and over, the best in the world," he said. "And we have young players who have to try to be part of this group and integrate, and that's what we're trying to do."
Others, though, offer a gloomier assessment. The 18-year-old Inter Milan full-back Davide Santon provides some reason for optimism, but for all the calls for youth, the truth is that Italy's coach, Marcello Lippi, had few options. "I don't see many young players around who could have made a difference," said Buffon. "Maybe that's because our league has become less competitive. All we can hope is that our young players make a leap in quality in the coming months, but you need character and experience to be successful at international level."