Italian National Team Hopes To Regain The Support of Its Country's Fans

ROME (Associated Press) -

Beating Norway is not the only task Italy faces when it begins qualifying for the 2006 World Cup on Saturday.

After major disappointments in its last two big tournaments - the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 - the "Azzurri" have lost their appeal among the Italian public.

Fans show more passion for their club teams - whether it be Juventus or AC Milan or even smaller squads like Sampdoria or Siena - than the national team.

"Outside soccer a nationalistic sentiment exists a front-page editorial in the Gazzetta dello Sport said earlier this week. "Not anymore in soccer."

"We're unenthusiastic demanding spectators and the players are egotistic athletes who have become used to treating the national team jersey as a weight to dilute as much as possible."

Unless it's the World Cup or European Championship many top Italian players often decline to play for the national team. They and their clubs do not want to risk injury in matches that are often one-sided and - in the case of friendlies - inconsequential.

Italy faces a stiff contest when it hosts Norway on Saturday in Palermo Sicily but it is a heavy favorite when it travels to soccer minnow Moldova on Wednesday. Italy will also be heavily favored against the other teams in Group 5: Slovenia Scotland and Belarus.

Most of the national team's games are rotated among smaller stadium's outside Italy's soccer strongholds of Milan and Rome. Fans in the major cities do not display as much desire to see the national team when they have high-quality club soccer year-round.

Fan support for Italy at the European Championship in Portugal paled in comparison to its opponents: Denmark Sweden and even Bulgaria.

"The national team has lost it objective importance the Gazzetta said. "We're forced to say that qualifying for the next World Cup will be long and tough but it's not true. It's not really possible to think that Italy would acquire enough demerits to be left out. The truth is that what awaits us is two years of useless games that will be uselessly dramatized.

"The people more or less understand. And so do the players."

Italy has not lost a World Cup qualifier since May 1 1994 when it was defeated 1-0 in Switzerland. Since then the "Azzurri" have won 15 qualifiers and drawn six.

"All we have to do is win and we'll be liked by everyone defender Alessandro Nesta said. "I don't think we need a patriotic savior. Everyone just has to give 100 percent."

Nesta will likely wear the captain's armband against Norway with usual captain Fabio Cannavaro absent due to injury and Alessandro Del Piero - the next captain in line - struggling with a right calf problem.

With Del Piero out playmaker Francesco Totti serving the last of a three-match ban for spitting at a Danish opponent and Christian Vieri and Antonio Cassano still recuperating from injuries new coach Marcello Lippi is set to debut a new attack.

Parma's Albert Gilardino and Fabrizio Miccoli who recently transferred from Juventus to archrival Fiorentina likely will start up front.

Gilardino or "Gila" as he is often called is considered the best young striker in Italy and former coach Giovanni Trapattoni's decision not to take him to Euro 2004 was widely criticized. He scored 40 goals last season for Parma and Italy's European champion Under-21 team. Last week he led Italy to the bronze medal at the Olympics.

Miccoli one of the shortest players in Italy at 1.68 meters (5-foot-6) possesses great speed and could be the perfect compliment to Gilardino's finishing capabilities.

However the lineup is bound to change when Totti and Cassano return.

"We have to find a solid group with strong points that are always the same Nesta said. "Mainly we have to be more of a team. Then we can start to win with continuity and it will all recreate a positive mood."

For Norway strikers John Carew and Steffen Iversen have returned while Tore Andre Flo announced last week that he was retiring from national team play.

Goalkeeper Thomas Myhre said that a knee injury that sidelined him for Sunderland's last two games is better and he will be ready to play.

Norway coach Aage Hareide said Saturday's match presents a good opportunity to face Italy before the Serie A season has started.

"The Italians have good skills but they are not superhuman he said. "They can seem self-confident but I don't think they really are. They have more young players than usual."