Without Roma's Francesco Totti, Italy would be a different team on the world's most glorious soccer stage.
Before the Azzurri departed for the Far East in 2002, Totti's form had been deemed crucial to Italy in that summer's World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. And the same thing happened four years later, though the playmaker is just recovering from a broken ankle.
"No one else could play Totti's position," said coach Marcello Lippi at a two-day training camp earlier this month.
The "brain coach" of the Italian national team had called up 29 players, including several new faces, for a session on May 3 and 4 to try on some options in preparation for next month's tournament in Germany, but he later made it clear that Totti is irreplaceable.
Rather than being an out-and-out striker for Italy, Totti, who can play every attacking position with nonblockable lob, prefers to fill a role behind a potent front two to provide them with chances aplenty. That's a position centered behind forwards Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni in Lippi's 4-3-1-2 line-up, which relegates Del Piero to the bench.
"With Totti behind us, everything will be different," Toni said."When he's in form, Francesco is the best player in the world at that position."
"We are all waiting for Totti. He is fundamental for the team," echoed Gilardino.
Lippi has expressed his optimism to Totti's fitness for the June tournament, although the 29-year-old faces the toughest part of his rehabilitation -- to get back to the top form after months out of action since undergoing surgery to repair a bone he fractured in his left ankle during a Serie A match of AS Roma against Empoli on Feb. 19.
"I'm optimistic regarding Totti...There is cause for optimism. He is doing well and he is very enthusiastic and keen to get back, " said the boss.
Totti also showed his determination of going all out for Italy's attempt to win the German World Cup, which will "99 percent" likely be his final major tournament as he decided to dedicate more to his family.
"I work hard with a will to show what type of character Romans have," said the Rome-born player who was praised to be the best player in the world for the time by former soccer star Pele recently at a World Cup conference.
Totti made his career debut for Roma as a 16-year-old back in 1993, and played his first senior internatinoal show-up in 1998 when Italy won over Switzerland in the Euro 2000 qualifications.
He went on to score at the tournament against Romania and Belgium, and was named the man of the match in the final while his side lost to France.
While the Azzurri was on their road to qualify for the 2002 World Cup Finals, Italian coach for that time Giovanni Trapattoni handed Totti the No. 10 shirt in 2001 and started to set him, then a striker, to the position of a playmaker, floating behind the upgoing strikers with a licence to roam in search of space and possession.
The decision transformed the Italian side and changed the fate of Totti, as the Roma player and his national teammates produced some of the best attacking football Italy have played in years and Totti himself scored several crucial goals on international stage.
For his club duty, Totti also made his reputation felt, leading Roma to their first Serie A title in 18 years in 2001 and scored a personal best of 20 as the club finished runner-up to AC Milan in 2003-2004 season. He was voted Italy's player of the year in 2000 and 2003.
The 2002 Cup had been a perfect stage for Totti to bear out his reputation abroad, but he was sent off as Italy went down to South Korea in the second round on Ahn Jung-hwan's golden goal.
Then he spat at Danish midfielder Christian Poulen at the 2004 European championships and was banned until the semi-finals, but Italy failed to make it past the group stage.
To bounce back from all those awkwardness, Totti carries the right attitude entering this year's tournament in Germany, while Italy will be expecting big things from the prolific marksman.