Italy are playing for pride… and it is everything they have
23:07 GMT, 22 June 2012
Sportsmail columnist Ruud Gullit played in Italy for eight years and
understands their players and supporters better than most. Here the
Euro 1988 winner casts his expert eye on England’s next opponents.
Italy are playing well – they are better than I thought they would be, especially considering the match-fixing crisis in their country. But then the Italians know how to play a tournament, especially when they are under pressure.
In 1982, they had recently had the match-fixing controversy and won the World Cup. It was the same again in 2006. They know how to win. So now it has happened again and they are playing for pride. Their pride is everything they have.
Class act: Pirlo will be the biggest threat to England on Sunday
Andrea Pirlo in midfield is the biggest threat to England. I like him very much. Everything goes through him, he's their captain and dictates games. He's a very good playmaker and Scott Parker will have to be at his best to stop him.
As for Mario Balotelli, I hope he learns from all his mistakes because he is such a talent, but after a while you have to stop talking about him because he enjoys the attention.
He will have had plenty of attention in Italy. When I was at AC Milan, I couldn't walk around the streets. During my time at Chelsea I could sit in a cafe in the King's Road and relax but in Italy I had to go out back entrances and run as fast as I could because there were so many people wanting to talk to me. Italians are not ashamed of showing their emotions and that is nice.
Centre of attention: But Balotelli must do his talking on the pitch
The most important thing you need to know about Italians is that they are very proud. So when the Italians play football, they are playing for pride and they will defend that with everything they have. They will defend their goal at any cost.
They like all the aesthetic things in life, all the beauty: food, fancy cars, nice clothes – they appreciate them all. For that reason, defending is an art form for them. And because it is considered art, it is so difficult for strikers to score goals. If you get one chance as a forward, you must score and therein lies their strength. They know they have to score. If you score, you're good. If you don't, you're not.
Milan was a serious group of players. Everything was all about winning. With that group of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, they wanted to win every game. If we drew a game, hell broke loose with people screaming.
Italian job: Gullit describes his period at AC Milan as the best of his career
Arrigo Sacchi screamed, Fabio Capello screamed, so we had to stay at the top. Silvio Berlusconi was the same. Almost every week he would fly into the training ground in his helicopter – landing on one of the astro pitches. He was very close to us.
When he came we were all so smart, everybody wore a tie. I had to adapt immediately, particularly with clothes. My fashion sense was terrible and as soon as the other players saw me, they said, 'You can't wear that'. We had a moveable skeleton in the changing room and if somebody had something strange on, they would dress it with your clothes. That's when you knew not to wear them ever again. The first thing I had to do was get rid of my white socks.
Everything was so professional at the club and when you arrive at the training ground Milanello, you can sense the smell of winning. As a player you have nothing to worry about except football. If you have a gas pipe that is broken, they'll fix it for you; if your car breaks down, they will deal with it. You just have to think about playing well.
Defending is an art form for the Italians… it is so difficult for strikers
The diet was so healthy too. You had salads, beans, ham and then afterwards pastas, risottos or fish. Everything was good for you and I was used to Holland, where we ate steaks and salty soup before a game. When I tried to change the food at Chelsea they all just laughed at me and asked for their food back. 'We want our gravy back,' they used to say to me.
When I arrived in Italy, I weighed 89kg (14 stone) and Maldini was 82kg (13 stone). We were the same height and they couldn't figure out why I weighed so much more. So I had to go on the scales every day and they tried to measure the fat on my hips, arms and back. In the end they realised it was all muscle.
Playing there was the best period of my life – I owe everything to the Italian league. And back then you had Inter, Juventus, Napoli, Roma – so many top clubs competing, just like the Premier League now.
The biggest problem in Italian football now is the stadiums. They are old and people don't want to go there. Juventus's attendances were poor and then they opened a new stadium and all of a sudden it was packed. The seats are nice, the facilities are good and they are proud of it. Other clubs need to do the same. Win Euro 2012 and the attendances might creep up again.