Costacurta: 'England's weakness is mental - they seem paralysed by anxiety'

Former AC Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta - who played for Italy in two World Cups - tells Marco Muretti that England's biggest problems are in their heads, and suggests an unfashionable Premier League player should have made Roy Hodgson's squad...

What’s your prediction for Italy vs England?

I think it will be a draw, and a draw with goals, because both defences are struggling right now. In the first match the fear of losing always speaks louder than everything else. There's too much tension: if you lose, the probability of being eliminated is pretty high.

Do Italy or England have any chance of actually winning the World Cup?

Putting patriotism to the side, I still think Italy has more chances. Historically when it really matters – in the World Cup and or the European Championships – we get the best out of ourselves, we do what we need to in order to win. We go beyond our limits. With England, the contrary is often true: they play worse than their abilities suggest they can. They’re paralysed by anxiety. And the Premier League is a lot more stressful and demanding than Serie A, especially this year when Juventus’ title was never in danger. The Premier League was in the balance right until the very end: all of the players from Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea will be more tired than our players.

Do expect them both to make it out of the group?

I think Italy and England will qualify. With [Luis] Suarez and [Edinson] Cavani, Uruguay have a couple of amazing forwards, probably the best of the tournament, and they will create a lot of problems for the Italian and English defences. But everywhere else on the pitch, Italy and England are much better.

Costacurta (No.6) in defensive action for Italy against England's Alan Shearer in 1997.

Costacurta (No.6) in defensive action for Italy against England's Alan Shearer in 1997.

A lot of the focus is on the teams’ respective star strikers, Mario Balotelli and Wayne Rooney, both of whom are not going into the World Cup in the greatest shape. How decisive a role do you think they will play?

I don’t agree with your premise. Balotelli is still far from being a real star player like Rooney is. But I don’t think it’s about Rooney, and just because he's not in great shape right now: it’s the team that will make the difference. And I think Italy are better organised; they are more of a team than England.

Are there any young players on either side that catch your eye and who could make a name for themselves in the opening game or during this World Cup?

For Italy, Ciro Immobile, maybe starting from the bench. He’s small, quick and has a killer instinct - the kind of player who can put fear into opposition defences in the last 30 minutes. As for England, I’ve got to admit I have a big admiration for Raheem Sterling: his speed and his unpredictability will be a problem for us.

What do you see as the weaknesses of England and Italy?

For England it’s a question of mentality. In important matches, they don’t show their best qualities, such as aggressiveness and tactical coherence. For Italy: I’ve spoken with most of our players and I found in them a lack of self-belief. They’re aware that the defence, which has always been our pride, is weak.

Who do you think will win the World Cup and why?

The winner will come from one of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain: they’ve all got plenty of big game players who have won major competitions with their clubs. This makes the difference in a World Cup: players who are used to winning.

Costacurta went to both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, the latter of which saw Italy knocked out by France.

Costacurta went to both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, the latter of which saw Italy knocked out by France.

Italy always held England in some kind of awe. Does this feeling exist nowadays or is something that belongs in the past?

No. Now we have a sort of inferiority complex with regard to Spain. I would say that England respect us. In fact, maybe they respect us too much.

Do you have any good anecdotes from any of the games you played against England?

I played three times against England. I think my biggest memory was the first time I played against David Beckham. It was in France, June 1997. We lost 2-0. I don't think Beckham was such a wonderful player, but he had a personality, a charisma that everybody, even his opponents, were charmed by him. I also think he’s the fairest opponent I had: even me - and I wasn’t what you’d call a soft touch - felt obliged to play clean with him because of his personality.

Roy Hodgson worked as a coach in Italy for almost four years at Inter Milan and Udinese: is this an advantage for England?

No. Serie A was a different planet at that time, and I think Hodgson is more of a “selector” than a coach: Cesare Prandelli is a coach, Hodgson is there more as a psychologist: his biggest challenge is eliminating the anxiety in the England team that not even [Fabio] Capello could cure.

The atmosphere in Manaus is very humid: will that work against England more than Italy?

It will be difficult for both teams. Italians are more used to humidity and hot weather, but this makes no difference when you play football at this level. I learnt that at the 1994 World Cup when we played Nigeria in Boston. It was hellishly hot and we thought that the Nigerians would fly, but after half an hour, they were more tired than us.

Manaus, the venue for Italy's meeting with England, is sure to get sticky...

Manaus, the venue for Italy's meeting with England, is sure to get sticky...

Which players that Prandelli and Hodgson left at home would you have brought to Brazil?

I would have called Giuseppe Rossi, maybe just to put him in at the end of the match: his speed against a tired defence would have been a terrific weapon. But I trust in Prandelli: Pepito was probably not in good enough shape to go to Brazil. For England, I would have called Adam Johnson: he’s quite erratic, but when he’s fit and in the mood he can be very dangerous.

In England there’s a big debate about where Rooney should play. What’s your view?

I think he’s wonderful as a second forward and less strong as an out-and-out centre forward: he’s very good in slotting in behind a classic striker like Rickie Lambert. But Hodgson is fond of his 4-2-3-1, so I can’t see him changing his mind about that.

You’ll be commentating on the World Cup for Sky Italy. Do you have any plans to come back as a coach after that?

That’s still my aim, and I’m working hard to make it happen. In the time I’ve been away from management I’ve been kept busy coaching my son! But now I’m ready to come back. My dream is to be a manager in the Premier League one day.

Alessandro Costacurta is a commentator for Sky Italia. Interview via Libero Language Lab