ROME (AP) — Expect Italy to treat the Confederations Cup more seriously this time.
Four years ago, the Azzurri went to the World Cup warm-up tournament in South Africa as world champions and went home after the first round. A year later, at the 2010 World Cup, Italy again was eliminated after the group stage.
"Being together for a month provides a great chance to improve. We know that all too well now," Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini said. "Four years ago in South Africa we didn't approach it properly and we paid the price."
The 2009 and 2010 disappointments led to the end of Marcello Lippi's second stint as Italy coach and the start of the Cesare Prandelli era. In just two years, Prandelli turned the Azzurri around to the point that they reached last year's European Championship final, which is how they qualified for the Confederations Cup.
Even though Italy lost the Euro 2012 final to Spain, the team is in Brazil representing UEFA since Spain had already qualified as the 2010 World Cup holder. Prandelli prides himself on not taking anything for granted and he no doubt wants Italy to maintain its momentum from Euro 2012.
While the Italian league remains afflicted by racism, fan violence and dwindling attendance, it's been left to the Azzurri to uphold the national sport. "It was a tough season but the national team shirt unites us and brings back our enthusiasm," Prandelli said. "Three years ago we started a project knowing that we would meet difficulty. We knew that we had to seek a faster pace and a higher quality of play. You can't try to decide a match with one episode or play."
After years of "catenaccio" — lockdown defense — Prandelli has installed a more modern approach based on the Spanish style of quick passing and quality midfielders. Centered around midfielder Andrea Pirlo's creative passes and punctuated by Mario Balotelli's power in attack, the system worked to near perfection in Poland and Ukraine last year — at least until it ran out of steam in the 4-0 rout by Spain in the final.
Perhaps as a result of the Euro 2012 final outcome, Italy has introduced a nutritionist in its full-time staff for this tournament. An even bigger addition should be 20-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy in Italy's attack alongside the 22-year-old Balotelli, forming the youngest forward tandem of any elite national team.
El Shaarawy and Balotelli already showed their potential together at AC Milan this past season. El Shaarawy tied for third in Serie A with 16 goals and Balotelli scored 12 in 13 appearances after transferring from Manchester City in January.
Antonio Cassano, who was a fixture in Italy's attack a year ago, was dropped from the squad after Euro 2012. Pablo Osvaldo was in the running to be Balotelli's strike partner but he was kicked off Italy's squad after insulting his club manager with Roma.
The 34-year-old Pirlo plans to retire from the national team after next year's World Cup. He's coming off a season in which he played 44 matches for Juventus. "Andrea is a reference point for us, he's decisive," Prandelli said. "If he's tired we'll consider that but I'm convinced that everyone will be lively."
In Group A, Italy opens against Mexico on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro then faces Japan three days later in Recife and Brazil on June 22 in Salvador.