This friendly turned not so friendly

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

It was just a fundraiser, disguised as a friendly, played thousands of miles off soccer's beaten path, between the scrubs from a couple of national teams that have a few things to prove, though not last night. And, as it turned out, it wasn't all that friendly either.

That didn't seem to matter to the hardcore fans of Italy and of Serbia and Montenegro last night. Fully an hour ahead of the exhibition game at the Rogers Centre, fans of both nations were beside themselves with joy at the mere sight of real, live footballers cavorting on real, live grass. Indoors, of course.

Maybe a little of the fans' unexpected emotions rubbed off on the players because this match was played with an edge seldom seen in a game where the stakes are so low. It may have had something to do with the loose officiating by the Canadian referee, more than disrespect between the teams, but the chippy play quickly turned Italy into a 10-man team when Manuele Blasi collected two yellow cards and was gone in half an hour.

Serbia and Montenegro already had scored five minutes prior to the Blasi dismissal when Nikola Zigic was sent in alone against 'keeper Angelo Peruzzi.

That's the way it stayed for most of the evening, thanks largely to a pair of utterly scintillating second-half saves by Serbia 'keeper Oliver Kovacevic, the first off Simone Barone and the second against David DiMichele.

As time wore on and with pride on the line, the Italians played with considerably more urgency in an effort to nail the equalizer. Then, in the blink of an eye, it happened in the 83rd minute.

Fabio Grosso broke in off the left side, turned a Serbian defender inside out and fed a perfect cross to trigger-man Cristiano Lucarelli, the leading goalscorer in Serie A this year for Livorno.

In the end, this contest had plenty of entertainment value with both teams playing with more intensity than one would expect from an exhibition.

While almost all of the big names from both Italy and Serbia and Montenegro rested their weary bones back in Europe, second and third-stringers from both countries, names only vaguely familiar to even the most astute aficionados, were cheered as if they were playing for the World Cup itself and they seemed to respond.

In a year's time, both teams may very well be doing just that. At least they hope so.

On a global scale, the Azzurri are coming off a crushing quarter-final defeat at the 2002 World Cup to co-host South Korea. Toss in the fact that Italy didn't even make it out of group play at Euro 2004 and you have a soccer-mad country growing extremely impatient.

Such failures are not easily tolerated in Italy.

Italy appears to be a shoo-in to qualify for Germany 2006, and is comfortably in the lead in Europe's Group 5, four points ahead of Norway and Slovenia.

It's not the getting there that has been the problem recently for Italy. It's the staying there. Solving that problem is the job of former Juventus boss Marcello Lippi, having taken over from much-abused Giovanni Trapattoni, who presided over the Korean and Euro 2004 fiascos.

Serbia and Montenegro also is anxious to return to the world spotlight, having failed to make the starting grid at neither the previous World Cup nor last year's European Championship.

The country previously known as Yugoslavia was a nation rich in football tradition and Serbia and Montenegro would like to develop that same reputation.

It woke up yesterday tied with Spain atop Europe's Group 7. Spain played to a 1-1 draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina yesterday and now has a one-point advantage going into the next round of games in September.


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