It was a boiling hot afternoon in Pasadena, California, and sporting temperatures were soaring as Italian football hero Roberto Baggio ballooned a penalty kick high above the goal. The miss haunted Baggio for years, handed footballs World Cup to Brazil and consigned Italy to a period of national mourning.

That moment at the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States remains the closest Italy has come to regaining sports most coveted crown since its triumph in the 1982 tournament.

Now the Azzurri, as the Italian team is affectionately named, aim to balance the history books at this years competition in Germany, which kicks off on 9 June. However, they will be playing against the backdrop of a nasty scandal over referee rigging that has hit not only the countrys top league teams such as Juventus but also top referees, one of whom was named an Italian representative to the World Cup.

The tournament takes place every four years and is quite simply the biggest sporting event on earth, watched by a global audience of billions and epitomising the dreams of every footballer. This years competition will be the 18th World Cup since the events inception in 1930 and will see 32 nations competing from across the globe.

Italians tend to reflect on their record in the tournament with a mix of pride and pain. The Azzurri have claimed the trophy three times, a record bettered only by the mighty Brazil, which has won five. Indeed, Italys most famous victory came against the Brazilians in the 1982 tournament with a wonderful 3-2 win. Low points include one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, when the Italians fell to North Korea in 1966, and of course Baggios miss in California in 1994.

But theres little doubt that the Italians head to Germany fired by a sense of injustice from the previous World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002. There, the Azzurri were knocked out by joint hosts South Korea in bitter fashion, as a goal was controversially disallowed and striker Francesco Totti sent off.

To get to the World Cup, a team must first go through a series of qualifying matches in the previous two years, a process which also provides a rough guide to how it might fare in the tournament itself. Italy began sluggishly, losing 0-1 to Slovenia before eventually winning a relatively easy group by five points and so qualifying for Germany. Once at the finals, a team is placed in a group of four, and Italys opponents in Germany should not be dismissed lightly; they comprise a tough Czech Republic team that includes Juventus Pavel Nedved, an improving Ghana side driven by Chelsea star Michael Essien and a US side that is far from the pushover many may have considered it in years gone by.

But this Italy team has its own strengths, boasting the worlds most expensive goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon, arguably Europes hottest striker in Luca Toni and currently one of the most gifted players in Italy and maybe Europe, Francesco Totti. Then there is the youthful energy of Daniele De Rossi in midfield alongside the experience of defenders Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, the captain. A key factor naturally will be how these talents are welded together by Italian coach Marcello Lippi, whose own impressive pedigree includes five Serie A titles and a Champions League trophy while manager of Juventus.

Sports editor of the Italian daily Il Messaggero, Nino Cirillo, argues that there is plenty of cause for optimism: Italy has a good chance this year judging by recent results. The team will also benefit from this years tournament being in Europe, as there will be no problem having to adapt to the time difference or climate.

The teams strength lies in the explosive attack with players like Toni, he continues. A problem may be the defence, however, which is not in the strong tradition of previous Italian teams.

But the key factor may be that for some of these players, it is their last chance to make their mark in a World Cup. Given these dont come along too often, theyll be desperate for success.

A lot may depend on the fitness of the aforementioned Totti. An ankle injury in February kept him out of the remainder of Romes league season and his stamina and general fitness at the highest level of football will be open to question. Still, the Azzurri have shown they can cope without their talisman, overpowering Germany 4-1 in Tottis absence in March for example.

Cirillo says that Totti is one of the best players Italy has ever had, but its not the end of the world if he struggles to play. To be honest, hes never performed as well for the national team as he does for Roma. The fact remains though that an Azzurri without Totti is not a true Italian team.

If the team qualifies through its group, it will then play a second round match, followed by quarter and semi-finals, then the final, should it go all the way.

England will also be strong, as it looks to end 40 years without the trophy. It is well documented that this is the most exciting crop of players England has had in a generation, but whether they can gel and perform at the highest level when it counts remains in question. This is especially so with star player Wayne Rooney struggling to get fit in time for the event.

Argentina is always a threat, while Spain, with a set of gloriously gifted players, will seek to banish years of underachievement that put even England in the shade. And then there is Germany, which is building a promising young team and which of course will be roared on by a fanatical home crowd. But few people can see past current champions and firm favourites Brazil retaining the crown, and it is easy to see why: an embarrassment of riches includes Barcelonas Ronaldinho and Milans Kaka, to name but two.

So back to Italy. If they stay injury-free and enjoy a little of the luck that deserted them in 2002, the Azzurri should at least expect a quarter-finals place and hopefully go even further. Lifting the famous trophy in Berlin on 9 July would be enough to satisfy most Italians and help exorcise the ghosts of Pasadena and Baggio.