In less a month England face Italy in the Amazonian city of Manaus, and former Azzurri and Chelsea striker Gianfranco Zola is no doubt just how much the county of his birth has in common with that he now calls home.
“They are very alike,” Zola tells FourFourTwo. “Nobody in England has great expectations about the competition and it is the same in Italy. We know there are better teams around than Italy but, like England, that can help because the pressure can be immense in my country.”
Unlike England, however, Zola can point to recent tournaments when the Azzurri rose to the challenge and exceeded expectations. “In my country the pressure can be immense but that won’t be there this time and that can help,” he says. “Look at 2006. Not many people expected Italy to win in Germany that year but they did.”
Can England do the almost impossible, then, and match Marcello Lippi’s team's historic exploits? “It will be very hard,” says Zola. “It is one of the toughest groups and just getting out of that is a big ask. Uruguay, Italy, England; you couldn’t pick which two of that three will progress, and that's before we even talk of Costa Rica who can surprise people.
“England do have a young squad, though, and I have seen and been impressed by those youngsters this season. They have the qualities to potentially become top international players. [Raheem] Sterling, [Ross] Barkley, [Luke] Shaw, [Adam] Lallana too – he’s really bright and not typically English. If you can have the battling spirit of England and then add these very bright, technical abilities on top then I think the future is very positive.
“Add that to the established quality England have in [Steven] Gerrard and [Wayne] Rooney and you have a good mix. [Daniel] Sturridge can score goals and has great qualities, and many of them look more and more like international footballers. They have Spanish-style skills we didn’t always associate with English football, and that is great news.”
Stamford Bridge legend Zola doesn’t expect a classic game on June 14, however, and sees a tough journey back through the jungle for a potenial loser. “It will be so important not to be beaten in the first game. Lose that and things get very hard.” A draw it is then.
Italy are renowned for being slow burners, but Zola is reserving judgement on their chances of a strong start. “I am not sure,” he admits. “There are five or six teams better than Italy. We know that so we are not sure where we will get. What we do know is that we have a good manager, a lot of young players and if those young players get it going, things can happen. We will wait and see what happens.”
Gianfranco Zola was promoting the 2014 BMW PGA Championship. Tickets (May 20-25 at Wentworth club) are still available at www.europeantour.com/tickets