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Even Ronaldo was caught off guard. The former Brazil striker built his footballing career around a rare capacity to anticipate what would happen next, recognizing where team-mates and opponents were headed before they knew themselves. But he made no secret of his surprise this week at seeing Italy qualify for the 2014 World Cup with two games to spare.

“Welcome, and congratulations on the speed of your arrival,” wrote Ronaldo, an ambassador for the tournament, in a guest column for Gazzetta dello Sport. “I was expecting you with all the other teams in October, so I have to admit that this was a bit of shock … Not the fact of your qualification – I never had any doubts on that front – but rather that you got here so quickly.”

He was not alone in his appraisal. Italy have missed out on just one World Cup (1958) since they first entered—and won—the tournament back in 1934, but this was the first time in the nation’s footballing history that they had qualified with more than one game left to play.

Nor had they benefited from an especially easy draw. Group C did not contain another obvious contender for first place, but each of Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic seemed capable of making life difficult for Cesare Prandelli’s side. And yet, after eight games, the Azzurri remain undefeated and having only dropped a mere four points in draws against the Bulgarians and the Czechs.

Italy had, in the sporting parlance, ‘booked their place’ in Brazil with a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic in Turin on Tuesday night. In a more literal sense, their football federation had done so several months earlier, placing room reservations with the Portobello Resort & Safari in Mangaratiba, an ocean-front hotel 65 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.

Those accommodations will be used not only by players, coaches and team officials, but also wives, girlfriends and children. One can only imagine how such an arrangement might go down in England, where many people continue to blame the nation’s underachievement at the 2006 World Cup on the distractions caused by ‘Wags’ in the team camp.

Prandelli does not share these concerns. Players’ families were already invited out to Brazil to join the team for this summer’s Confederations Cup, where they stayed together at another seaside resort, the Sheraton Barra. In their free time some players would take their families out to look at shops and sight-see. Others rushed out for a game of footvolley on the beach.

Perhaps the manager will clamp down on such games next summer and discourage his players from activities that could tire them out or put them at risk of an injury. More likely Prandelli will let them be. His tenure thus far has been defined by the belief that football should first and foremost be fun. Not for nothing did reporters christen his team L’Italia del sorriso—Italy with a smile.

Unlike so many others who pay lip service to the ideal, you get the sense that Prandelli truly does believe in his role as a national servant. He has taken his team to train on pitches reclaimed from the mafia, as well as in areas that were laid low by national disasters. He has enforced a strict code of conduct for his players, holding them to a higher standard.

And where his predecessor, Marcello Lippi, clung determinedly to a small and trusted squad, Prandelli has fought to ensure a meritocracy. In three years he has handed 39 different players their first international cap.

His actions have helped contribute to a mood of optimism around the national team, with players looking forward to international breaks instead of viewing them as a distraction from the day job. Perhaps that positivity has made a difference on the pitch, too.

The manager has got his tactics right more often than not, finding ways to negate Spain’s tiki-taka in both the Euro 2012 group stage and the Confederations Cup semi-final, even if his exhausted squad were blown away by the same opponents in the final of the former competition. But the fact that his team shuffled through three different formations against the Czech Republic on Tuesday night was indicative of Prandelli’s ongoing uncertainty over which system suits his players best.

It would be false to suggest that Italy have always played well under his leadership. There have been some exceptional performances—most notably the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany—but also a number of disappointing ones. Italy’s speedy qualification owes much to the enduring brilliance of Gigi Buffon, who made a scarcely credible reflex save in the 2-1 win over Bulgaria last Friday, and did more than anybody to preserve a 0-0 draw away to the Czech Republic in Prague.

But if Italy have survived such tests time and again in the last three years, then it speaks to the manager’s qualities. More than the performances of Buffon, Andrea Pirlo or Mario Balotelli, it is the unity of this team which has become its defining strength. Time and again players have shown themselves willing to adjust to unfamiliar positions, track back and work themselves into the ground.

That spirit seems to have been embraced by the fans. Italy have not always been able to rely on the backing of their own supporters down the years, with club allegiances leading some to ignore or even jeer the national team. There were concerns before the most recent game that Balotelli might be heckled at Juventus Stadium, a place where he has been racially abused in the past.

Perhaps it was a different crowd that attended on Tuesday, or perhaps fans are just fickle, but this time the striker was warmly received. “The man of the match was Juventus Stadium—passionate and inspiring,” wrote Luigi Garlando in Gazzetta. “The applause for Balotelii after his missed chances was beautiful. We feared a poisonous atmosphere, instead we got a splendid lesson in sporting behaviour, one which we must take back with us to Serie A.”

Italy will need more than just optimism and good will, of course, to succeed in Brazil next summer. Prandelli’s team remains short of options out wide and is yet to find its best combination up front. There is already a huge weight of expectation on Giuseppe Rossi, who only just returned from successive knee ligament tears, to enjoy a productive season and find his way back into the side.

On top of all that is the potential distraction caused by reports that Prandelli plans to quit once the tournament is over. He is yet to make an official statement on the matter, but will do so in the coming days. Still just 56, few could begrudge him the desire to have another crack at the club game.

Even if Italy are at their best, achieving success in Brazil is a tall order indeed. Italy’s three previous World Cup campaigns in South America have ended twice in the first round (1950 and 1962) and once in the semi-finals (1978). No European team has ever won a World Cup on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Azzurri, though, can at least count on some high-profile backing. “As an ambassador, I am supposed to stay neutral,” wrote Ronaldo in the conclusion to his column. “So I will whisper this quietly: a little piece of my heart is always in Italy. I will always support Italy, secretly, a little bit.”

Back home, Italian fans will cheer for this team more loudly than many that have gone before. This week the Azzurri achieved something on the pitch that they had never done before, but it was the manner of that success—not the fact of it—which has won them such vociferous support.