KRAKOW, Poland — Italy hasn't met England in a major tournament in 22 years, and the excitement among the Azzurri for Sunday's European Championship quarterfinal match is palpable.
Midfielder Daniele De Rossi can’t wait to measure himself against Steven Gerrard, while reserve forward Alessandro Diamanti called the match in Kiev “a dream” that he thought could only be realized on a computer game.
De Rossi added that temperamental forward Mario Balotelli, who plays in England with Manchester City, is “used” to dealing with the British tabloid press and that he won’t be affected by any negative media coverage before the match.
Italy’s last major tournament match with England came in the third-place game at the 1990 World Cup, when host Italy won 2-1.
The only other time they met at a Euros or World Cup came in a group match at Euro 1980, when the Azzurri won 1-0. Their last meeting overall came in a friendly 10 years ago that Italy won 2-1. Only captain Gianluigi Buffon remains on Italy’s squad from that match.
However, most of the Italy players have faced English teams with their clubs, and they are not lacking familiarity with the likes of Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Ashley Young.
“It’s not like we’re discovering England now,” De Rossi said Wednesday. “Gerrard has always been my idol and he’s a player who’s been at the top level of the game for 10 years. But they’ve also got many interesting young players, especially on the wings.
“And (England coach Roy) Hodgson has experience in Italy, so they know how to defend, too.”
De Rossi has been lauded as a “universal” player for his ability to change positions, even standing in the middle of Italy’s defense for the first time in the opening two group matches.
“The compliments have been nice, but Gerrard is the real universal player,” De Rossi said. “He can close down in defense and contribute in attack. I still need to acquire some of his characteristics.”
Five years ago, De Rossi’s Roma squad was humiliated 7-1 by Manchester United in the Champions League — a loss that still hurts.
“When I think about, I’ve never really made an impact against an English squad,” De Rossi said. “But I’ve never faced England’s national team — not even at the junior level. It’s an honor to play against such a great squad. I’ve played in a lot of matches with the national team, so this gives me a new reason to get excited.”
With 75 appearances, De Rossi is the third-most senior member of Italy’s squad. Diamanti, coming off just his second appearance, is one of the most inexperienced Azzurri players.
“I thought a match like this could only be played on PlayStation. It’s a dream,” said Diamanti, who had a brief spell in England with West Ham in 2009-10, and is now with Bologna. “They’re football is 30 years ahead of ours, but on the pitch we’re stronger.”
Balotelli helped City win the Premier League title last month, but he was also constantly under the tabloid spotlight for his temper — in January he received a four-match suspension for his stamp on Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker — and misadventures off the field.
“He’s more used to this pressure than we are,” De Rossi said. “They talk a lot about him because he’s a really great player, he’s young and he plays in England. … Balotelli is fairly grown up for a (21)-year-old, but he’s still just a kid.
“I’m convinced he’ll play this match without any problems. We’re not worried about scandals, we’re locked up in our hotel.”
De Rossi also had kind words for his former Roma coach Fabio Capello, who resigned from the England job in February.
“Capello can create fear. With all do respect to (Hodgson), he adds value,” De Rossi said. “With Roma, he took me from the youth team to the first squad and under him I joined (Italy’s) under-21 squad and was ready for the senior national team. Saying I owe everything to him isn’t saying enough.”
One area Italy knows it can’t compete with England in is fan support.
Azzurri fans have already been greatly outnumbered in each of their group matches, with large pockets of empty seats in the area allotted to them.
“These are tough financial times and we can’t expect our fans to come en masse like the English do,” De Rossi said. “But hopefully we can still keep winning and creating excitement. … History shows that Italy plays its best in these big matches.”