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Del Piero, Italy's Stoical Substitute

GEEL (Reuters)(DS) - If Juventus striker Alessandro Del Piero is annoyed at being left out of the Italy first team, he is not letting on. Del Piero has been bombarded with questions over the last few days from fans and reporters anxious to know how he feels to be on the fringes of Dino Zoff's Euro 2000 team.

Belgian cycling hero Eddy Merckx turned up at the Italian training camp on Monday and declared Del Piero his favourite Italian player. A lone banner draped over the perimeter fence at Italy's training base paid homage to him. "Zoff, give us a present, Del Piero in the first team," it read.

Everyone, it seems, would like to see Del Piero start for Italy. Everyone, that is, apart from Zoff. The Italian coach has opted for a two-man attack of Filippo Inzaghi and Francesco Totti in his side's last two matches, resisting the temptation to play Del Piero alongside Inzaghi with Totti as a playmaker.

The coach's choice was vindicated by Italy's 2-1 group B defeat of Turkey and Zoff looks certain to stick with it against Belgium later on Wednesday. If it works again, Del Piero's hopes of winning a first team place at this championship might be gone for good.

But the 25-year-old, once hailed as the boy wonder of Italian football, is taking his exclusion in his stride.

"I'm flattered by all the attention," he said. "It's perhaps a tribute to the things I've done in the past. "I don't ask myself why I'm not in the first team. If it happens that I play a quarter of an hour as I did against Turkey then I'll play as well as I can.

"I hope to play as much as possible, I hope to make myself useful, I hope to do well. That's it in a nutshell." Del Piero must nevertheless be experiencing deja vu. Two years ago he was in a similar position, vying with Roberto Baggio for a place in Italy's World Cup team.

Hit by an injury on the eve of France 98, he had a disappointing tournament which failed to do justice to his sparkling 1997-98 season. Four months later he suffered a serious knee injury and has never truly rediscovered his form.

But Del Piero's nimble footwork, sudden changes of pace and artful free-kicks make him a natural favourite with fans and neutrals, regardless of his poor form. "In Spain they say you would play in the first team every time. What do you say?" ventured one Spanish reporter on Tuesday, trying to tease the player into a response. "I'm not Spanish," Del Piero replied serenely.

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© 1999-2000 Catherine Craveiro