It's hard to imagine that only four years ago Italy had won the World Cup on German soil, beating the hosts in the semi-final, and France, who were a real force with legendary playmaker Zinedine Zidane bossing their midfield, in the final.
Against the backdrop of a corruption scandal surrounding some of Italy 's top domestic clubs only a month prior to the start of the competition, during which manager Marcelo Lippi and some famous Juventus players were investigated, some even having their houses raided for their possible involvement in wrongdoing, the Italian national team traveled to Germany high on confidence and team spirit.
Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon, who was at the time undisputedly considered the best goalkeeper in the world, stated that the squad had their hearts set on lifting the trophy and that he was certain they could do it, despite the off-field distractions.
The Italian defence was almost impenetrable, remarkably conceding only two goals throughout the tournament. Fabio Cannavaro was undeniably the best centre-back around at the time, becoming the only defender to ever win the prestigious FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2006 for his performances for Juventus and Real Madrid. Even more amazingly, he was 33 at the time.
In fact, Italy 's most notable players were hitting their peak, if you consider that the prime of a football player is between the ages of 27-29, as Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger strongly believes.
Buffon (28), Zambrotta (29), Grosso (28), Pirlo (27), Gattuso (28), Toni (29), Camoranesi (30), and Totti (30) were all in their best years, playing regularly for top clubs competing in European competitions. It was impossible to find a young player who could match these highly respected international stars in experience or ability, and their class certainly showed, as they went on to win the 2006 tournament.
Fast-track four years later, and that same national team seems to have lost the desire and ability to compete with superpowers like Spain, Germany and Argentina who have invested in quality young players to take them forward.
Relying on too many of the same players, who are now clearly past their peak, Italy looked off the pace and short on options.
After the shock 3-2 defeat to Slovakia that eliminated Italy from World Cup 2010, on the back end of draws with Paraguay and New Zealand that saw them finish bottom of their group, Fabio Cannavaro, today 37 years of age and turning up for United Arab Emirates side Al-Ahli Dubai, said that if Italy want to get back to the top of international football, they must invest in the future generation.
“I don't think there are many changes we can make. At the moment, Italy is not producing players like in my generation, when we had great players,” stated the most capped player in the history of the Italian team.
"It's not just the national team, it's the clubs. We have good players but not top-drawer. I've been saying for a while that the system has to change,” he added.
That being said, here are the top three young Italians who do have the potential to inject some life into an aging, tired national team seeking to restore former glory.
The 19-year-old Inter Milan full-back started his youth career in 1999 playing for Ravenna. He made the move to his current club in 2005 at the age of 14, and it wasn't long before he was already training with the first team, blending his evident abilities with maturity beyond his years.
He offers volumes of versatility, as he is strong with either foot and can play on both the right and left in defence and midfield equally well, although he is often preferred as a right-back.
A towering presence at 1.87m, Santon is as pacy and powerful as he is skillful.
Former Inter Milan manager Jose Mourinho took notice of the exciting potential and handed Santon his full debut for the side in January 2009 in a cup match against Roma, before he appeared in a league match versus Sampdoria for his Serie A debut days later.
Even at 18 years of age, the teenager showed he can be relied upon as a classy option at the back, and was handed his European baptism of fire in a match against in-form Manchester United. His duty - containing then 'Red Devils' ace Cristiano Ronaldo, who was having an incredible season for the Old Trafford side.
The match ended goalless and Santon earned a five-star review by Ronaldo. “I was impressed by [Davide] Santon; he is a really interesting lad and a great footballer,” said the Portuguese international who is widely regarded as one of the world's best players.
He was also heralded by former Italy manager Marcelo Lippi as having qualities reminiscent of AC Milan and Italy legend Paolo Maldini.
The precocious full-back appeared 18 times in league matches during the 2008/2009 season, another 13 times the following year, and has played four games so far this season for the Nerazzurri.
Gradually becoming a recognizable figure for the Italian national team, Santon had accumulated 19 caps forItaly 's U-17, U-20 and U-21 teams before breaking into the senior team set-up, amassing five appearances thus far since 2009.
Santon is tipped to become a key figure for the Italian national side for years to come.
The central midfielder is only 21 years of age but has the composure of a veteran. As technical as he is tactically aware, Poli will expertly hold on to the ball during spells of possession and track back to perform defensive duties for his side.
Sporting excellent passing ability along with vision and creativity, the playmaker can spot an opening and execute the killer through-pass.
Perhaps the only area in which the 1.81m-tall player is lacking is his aerial ability - something Poli should work on in order to become the full package for club and country.
He started his career playing for lower league club Treviso, but was signed by Sampdoria in 2007, aged 18.
The midfielder was then loaned out to Serie B club US Sassuolo Calcio for the 2008/2009 season, where he became a first team regular, notching 32 appearances during which time he found the net five times.
Upon his return to Serie A with Sampdoria, Poli immediately established himself as a valuable first-team member, playing 31 times for the Genoa outfit, while he became a key presence for the Italy U-21 side, making 13 appearances and scoring once.
Disappointingly for him, he was put on the backburner for much of this campaign up until now. His only appearance was in the UEFA Europa League match versus Metalist Kharkov, where he played 64 minutes during the 2-1 loss.
With his best years still very much ahead of him, Poli has the talent to become the next Andrea Pirlo.
Easily one of the world's most exciting talents, Mario Balotelli has been heralded as the future of Italian football ever since he was given Italian citizenship on August 2008.
The 1.89m-tall powerhouse was born to Ghanaian immigrants in the city of Palermo, and started playing football as an 11-year-old for Lumezzane in 2001. He was scouted by Inter Milan and joined their youth set-up five years later.
Balotelli's story is a difficult one, as he was given up for adoption early in his life and had to deal with the “glory hunting”, in his words, of his biological parents once he became a football starlet. He also had to face racist chants on numerous occasions during his time in Italy , and was only handed full Italian citizenship at the age of 18.
Putting aside his personal background, however, Balotelli has all of the attributes to become a top-class striker, if he still isn't one already.
The youngster made his Inter debut in a December 2007 match against Cagliari before appearing in a cup match versus Reggina a few days later, where he scored a brace to help his side to a 4-1 victory. He went on to score twice against Juventus in the same competition to gain national acclaim.
Balotelli got his first Serie A goal in April 2008 against Atalanta, and netted twice more over the course of the season in which he made 11 appearances. He also struck an 83rd minute goal versus Roma in the Italian Super Cup.
His rise to stardom was rapid as he became the youngest Inter player to ever score in the Champions League with his goal against Anorthosis Famagusta at 18 years and 85 days.
During the 2008/2009 season, Balotelli scored nine goals in 28 appearances and ten goals in 34 appearances in the following year.
He was sold to Manchester City in the summer of 2010 for a staggering fee of €29 million, and he scored on his debut against Romanian side FC Timisoara in the UEFA Europa League in August 2010.
Unfortunately, the forward injured his knee that same month and was ruled out for around nine weeks. He is due to make a comeback in early November in order to help Manchester City mount a title challenge.
Technically sound, speedy and one of the most powerful and explosive strikers out there, it is only up to Balotelli whether or not he fulfills his massive potential to become one of the world's top strikers. The only thing that might hinder his progress is a reputation he has for being a problematic individual who is so confident in his own abilities that he lacks a certain work ethic.
Everyone is expecting the 20-year-old striker to shine on the world stage and he could be a massive player for Italy if he commits himself to steady progress.