x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A southerly wind of change for Lippi

The head coach has included players from the islands off mainland Italy in the last squad before finalising the list of 23 for the World Cup.

Marcello Lippi, Italy's head coach, named his squad for tomorrow's World Cup preparation match against Cameroon just a few hours before a small but significant geographical coup struck the Serie A table. By Sunday afternoon, Lippi knew his choices would stimulate whoops of joy among the nation's islanders. That evening, Palermo, of Sicily, then launched themselves into the league's top four by beating Juventus. This is a good time to be off the mainland in Italian football. A pair of players from Cagliari, of Sardinia, and two more from Palermo have been included in the last squad the world champions name before releasing their official list of 23 who will go to South Africa.

And it is a good time to be employed in the south of Italy - the islands count themselves as part of it - because eight of the party for the friendly against Cameroon are drawn from clubs there. For those who are counting, you can add some of Lippi's most trusted lieutenants, who, though employed by the established giants of northern Italy, are natives of the lower half of the peninsula. Fabio Cannavaro, a Neapolitan, continues as captain into his late 30s. The bulldog Rino Gattuso, who hails from Reggina, is retained in the squad even after patchy form with Milan.

In Italy, people keep a tally of the regional diversity of the Azzurri, because it is a divided country, and, as ever, the football culture reflects that. You hear it from the chants of supporters. The standard grandstand serenades for any visitor from anywhere beneath Rome are studded with mocking terms like "smugglers", "gypsies" or '"terroni", a catch-all, insulting word for folk from the south. The Sicilian clubs in Serie A are hardly surprised when they hear somebody in a crowd in a northern stadium shout "mafiosi". I once asked Cannavaro, who is proud of coming from Naples, what he imagined the stereotypical image of a man from his city was. "Oh, outsiders all think we want to rob or to cheat them," he smiled.

Napoli were the last southern club to win the scudetto, in the heyday of Diego Maradona. The club's current revival has some stamina. They sit two points off a place in the table that would take them into the Champions League next season, and they have three players in Lippi's squad. Closer now to Champions League football next August are Palermo, since Sunday's 2-0 win at Juve, and the invasion of the top eight of Serie A is completed by Cagliari, whose goalkeeper Frederico Marchetti and attacking midfielder Andrea Cossu have been summoned by Lippi.

Cossu celebrates his first call-up, and, joined as he is by Palermo's Sardinian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, another debutant, he will appreciate how he has made history for his island. Never have two native Sardinians been together in an Italy squad before, and nobody born on that island has played for Italy since Gianfranco Zola. Cossu's is a romantic story. He is 29, has spent his career hovering between Series B and A but throughout that time retained his active affection for Cagliari. Their fans say that even when he was playing for Verona, Cossu would travel back home to join them on the terraces supporting Cagliari.

Cossu, a clever supplier of passes, looks like a Sardinian, if he will excuse the stereotype. He is no giant. "We in Sardinia have good genes to be jockeys," the diminutive Zola chuckles. "Throughout history we have been underestimated," he adds. "We are far from the centres of power and we have been penalised for that. Life isn't easy in Sardinia. There are no big industries and people have always worked hard. But we want to prove we are capable of great things." @Email:sports@thenational.ae