ROME (AP) – Italy has undergone a complete overhaul after its embarrassing first-round exit from the 2010 World Cup, with the biggest changes coming from new coach Cesare Prandelli.
The European Championship will put Prandelli's younger and more versatile squad to the test - both on and off the field.
The former Parma and Fiorentina coach has instituted a code of ethics that threatens to ban any player for the slightest misbehavior, he plans to include temperamental but talented forwards Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano in his squad, and he wants to continue announcing his lineups the night before matches.
''Our goal over the last two years has been to draw our fans back while at the same time sharing the national team with the people, because we represent Italy in the world,'' Prandelli said in a recent meeting with foreign media. ''We've got to create a situation where kids take pride in seeing players wear this jersey, and where the players behave like champions.''
The code of ethics prevents anyone in trouble with their club teams from playing for the national side, with the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Balotelli and Argentine-born forward Pablo Osvaldo each having missed matches for violating the code.
''It's nothing new. In football there are basic rules that have always existed, but - for one reason or another, or for laziness - have been forgotten. But they're still meaningful,'' Prandelli said. ''There's a line of behavior and a certain way to handle yourself and we shouldn't have to keep track of players' behavior.''
Unlike predecessor Marcello Lippi, who once declared that no coach in the world announces his lineup the day before a match, Prandelli does just that.
''It removes tension. There are not too many secrets in football. It's not like a coach changes the way he coaches, or changes something because he reads that one player or another is playing,'' Prandelli said. ''The players have been happy and calm. It removes some of the pressure.
''If a journalist doesn't know the lineup the day before he can be more nervous than the coach, so this way we calm everyone down,'' the coach added with a laugh.
Prandelli's calming techniques have been especially precious for Cassano and Balotelli, two players that Lippi left off the squad in South Africa that failed to win a match in one of the tournament's easiest groups.
Nine players on the 2010 World Cup squad were 30 or older, but expect Prandelli to fill this year's squad with younger players, especially in attack, where recent call ups have included Roma's 21-year-old forward Fabio Borini, Balotelli (21), Sebastian Giovinco (25), Osvaldo (26) and Alessandro Matri (27).
Previous captain Fabio Cannavaro and midfielder Gennaro Gattuso have retired from the national team, leaving goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo as the lone holdovers from the squad that won the 2006 World Cup.
Cassano has returned just in time from minor heart surgery after falling ill with stroke-like symptoms with AC Milan in September, and figures to be a fixture in attack with Balotelli.
United States-born forward Giuseppe Rossi, who was a starter during the Azzurri's unbeaten qualifying campaign, will miss the tournament after a third operation on his right knee, which will sideline him until 2013.
Having won the European title only once, in 1968, the Azzurri have a tough group featuring world champion Spain, eighth-ranked Croatia and Ireland - coached by Giovanni Trapattoni.
''Right after the draw obviously everyone asked me about Spain and Ireland, but I underlined that perhaps our most important match will be against Croatia,'' Prandelli said. ''First, because historically the second match is decisive and furthermore because I know (Croatia coach Slaven) Bilic and I know what he's doing with that squad, which is really loaded and has a lot of skill.
''To me, it's the toughest match in the group. It's also an emerging squad that wants to gain notice. I really fear Croatia.''
How about Ireland and Trapattoni, who coached Prandelli at Juventus 30 years ago.
''Every time we even mention Trapattoni he shows up with his traps,'' Prandelli said. ''It goes beyond professional ties. I want to hug him. I had him (as a manager) for six years in Turin, and he's not just a technical reference point for me.''
Still, defending champion Spain - which eliminated Italy on penalties in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals - should be the biggest obstacle.
''Strange as it sounds, I think we're fortunate to face them in the first match, because we'll enter prepared and we won't have time or alternatives,'' Prandelli said. ''We've got to enter with the right belief.''
With Pirlo, De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Nocerino in midfield, Prandelli has used Spain's quick passing strategy as a model.
''We want to involve the players in this philosophy and offer something new,'' Prandelli said. ''Considering we've got a talented midfield, I've tried to base our work on these players' qualities.''