Italians survive to fight another day

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:09 PM ET

Zurich -— It was minutes before France and Italy took to the field to play for their tournament lives.

The rain was pouring into Letzigrund Stadium.

Yet above the stadium stretched an almost perfect rainbow.

Some 90 minutes later, Italy had found the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Italy defeated France 2-0 but that pot would have held nothing but empty dreams had the Netherlands not beaten Romania.

The Dutch, with nine new players in the starting lineup, answered the exhaustive pleas of the Italian nation, defeating Romania 2-0.

If the Netherlands had lost, both Italy and France would have gone home and Romania gone on to the next round.

Italy will not go on to play Spain.

“We need to thank the Dutch,” said one Italian journalist. “They could have send both France and Italy home. I don’t know if Italy had been in the same situation, they would have done the same thing.”

None of that matters now. The Italians have made yet another miraculous escape from the jaws of elimination.

Survival by the slimmest of lifelines is as Italian a specialty as pasta al forno. Italy is notorious for starting slowly in major tournaments, often barely surviving to move into the next round.

Whether this team gets stronger as time goes on, is open to debate. They haven’t displayed the kind of form that’s good enough to win tournaments like this.

But there’s still time.

The Italians have a chance to make their fans forget the emotional trauma they were forced to undergo.

“I don’t want to come here with a mouth full of clichés” said Italian coach Roberto Donadoni, who is well aware the win extended his job with the Italians for at least one more day. “From when I became a coach, even as a player, I was used to earning everything with sweat and hard work. This team did the same thing. They earned it.”

It has been a draining experience for Italy. They were beaten badly by the Netherlands, survived a late penalty to tie the Romanians and had two bad offside goal calls threaten to bury them.

For all the things that have gone against them in this tournament, everything went right for them last night.

The French lost their best player, Franck Ribery early in the game with a suspected broken leg.

In the 24th minute, Luca Toni broke into the French penalty area and was chopped down by Eric Abidal.

Slovak referee Lubos Michel called a penalty and red-carded Abidal. The French would play the rest of the game with 10 men.

Andrea Pirlo scored on the penalty.

Then in the second half a huge cheer erupted in the stands. The Netherlands had gone up 1-0.

Italy had their foot on the necks of the French. Instead of squeezing, they removed it. The French pushed forward and went close with Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema.

But with Italians nerves frayed to breaking, yet one more bounce went the Italians way. A long free kick from Daniele De Rossi went off the French wall..

French keeper Gregory Coupet was going the wrong way and the ball wound up in the middle of the net.

When the news came shortly after that the Dutch had gone two up, the Italians knew they were through.

“I said the other day that when I woke up I found hair on my pillow,” Donadoni said. “I hope now that maybe some will grow back. We’ve suffered in this tournament.”

It was as much a relieved as happy group of Italians who left the pitch.

Antonio Cassano, who played the entire game, threw all his clothes into the stands. He ran around the pitch in his underwear, shoes and socks.

Italian fans carried banners that read “From Berlin to Vienna,” referring to Italy’s 2006 World Cup win in Germany. The 2008 Euro final is being held in Vienna.

“I don’t know if other teams fear us now,” Donadoni said. “All I know is that Italy is alive and that’s what’s important.”


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