By Alessia Palanti Special to Published Jun 16, 2010 at 10:09 AM
Italy vs. Paraguay was the match I had waited for and had been most nervous about. In their group, Italy's most difficult adversary is certainly Paraguay. Watching Italy's last two friendly matches in preparation for the Cup left me, honestly, less than impressed -- with players, formations and execution.

In the days leading up to the World Cup, I have been asked quite often what my thoughts are concerning my country's team entering the tournament. Italy is the defending champion, but only twice has a country successfully defended the title (Italy in 1934 and 1938; Brazil in 1958 and 1962), and to this point my response has been generally negative.

The stubbornness of Italian coach Marcello Lippi to use crucial players from 2006 deterred me and most fans of the Azzurri (Italy's team nickname). The champions of the last Cup were peaking at that time; four years later, many appear past their prime.

Those players were (relatively) old at that point, and now are four years older. In fact, Italy has one of the oldest teams in the competition. Lippi's insistence on using core players from the last Cup has naturally led to the exclusion of some of the country's brighter young stars: namely, Sampdoria striker Antonio Cassano, Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli and AC Milan's Marco Borriello.

Nevertheless, my faith in the team during the last tournament also started at a low, only to consistently grow as the tournament advanced. After all, Italy won the Cup in 1982 after playing to a draw in their first three matches. Barely advancing past the group stages, the Azzurri proceeded to defeat Argentina, Brazil, Poland, and West Germany in succession.

In 2006, a betting scandal hounded all Serie A league players going into the tournament. Playing through one of the most serious scandals in Italian football history, Italy gave up two goals the entire tournament -- an own goal against the United States and a penalty kick by the infamous Frenchman Zinedine Zidane.

Given this, I have decided to become more of a blank slate and let the matches write themselves. If we're notorious for anything, it certainly is our unpredictability. As four-time champions (trailing only Brazil's five), we hold a pretty heavy sense of responsibility toward our title. But, for this glistening cup, there will be many obstacles to jump.

The match against Paraguay started out strong, with a very athletic Italy managing to keep the game mainly in the adversary's half of the field. Shots on goal were minimal, and Paraguay, unfortunately, scored the first goal against the defending champs. In the driving rainstorm, AS Roma's Daniele DeRossi finally was able to tie the match.

Gaining one point each, the fate of the teams depended on the next match between the other two teams in the group: New Zealand vs. Slovakia. The latter proved to be the stronger team generally dominating after the first 20 minutes ... until the final thirty seconds of the second half -- 3 minutes into injury time. Incredibly, New Zealand scored a beautiful header from a delicate cross mere seconds before the final whistle. Metaphors abound, but this is why football is amazing -- you play and watch to the final second because anything can, and does, happen.

You never know ...

Alessia Palanti Special to
Alessia is a freelance writer from Florence, Italy. She has lived in Milwaukee for almost two years, with frequent visits back to her hometown.

She received a BA from Beloit College, where she developed as a modern dance choreographer. She has worked in the arts administration world in Chicago and has interned at The Repertory Theater in Milwaukee.

The performing arts -- film, theater and music -- are her passion, and she believes that the stage is not limited to scripted, but rather expands even the length of the soccer field.

She works part-time at the Highbury Pub in Bay View, which inspires her to share her cross-cultural experiences and her ideas on "the beautiful game."