Shameful showing for Italy
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency
Italy's Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Cannavaro fight for the ball with Slovakia's Robert Vittek during World Cup play at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
JOHANNESBURG -- Italy, the defending World Cup champion, was unceremoniously dumped from this year's tournament Thursday, losing 3-2 to Slovakia.
It becomes the first World Cup champion since France in 2002 to fail to advance beyond the group stage.
Coming into the World Cup, Italy was questioned about its speed, age and ability to score. As it leaves South Africa, those questions are magnified along with the slew of new ones.
The one that blares with the shriek of a claxon is where was the Italy of the last 10 minutes against Slovakia? Why did it take 260 minutes for the heart of a champion to show itself? Why didn't Italy come out in the first half and leave no doubt who was the better team?
The answer to that is a simple one -- it wasn't good enough.
The true skill and desire of a champion showed itself only after they were staring down the barrel of a gun trailing 2-0 and 3-0. Only then did it decide to play football the way it was supposed to be played. Until that point, the world champions played stupefying football, bereft of originality and passion.
Italians are fond of saying that Italy always starts slowly and gets stronger as the tournament progresses. But you can't always rely on everything going your way. Italy left everything to be decided on the last day and in the end the team it was playing refused to allow them a second life.
It was stunning how poorly the Italians played.
Slovakia took a 1-0 on a goal by Robert Vittel in a dreadful first half. Vittek scored a second in the 73rd minute and it looked over then.
But some of the young Italian players took over. Antonio Di Natale scored and suddenly Italy remembered it was world champion. It stormed the Slovakia net and was unlucky not to tie when Fabio Quagliarella appeared to score.
The goal was waved off, however, on a offside. It was a marginal call at best and often the kind of goal that is allowed.
But the poor quality of this Italian side reared its head moments later when four Italians couldn't defend a simple throw in. They allowed Kamil Kopunek to get loose and chip over keeper Federico Marchetti. If you can't defend a throw in, you don't deserve to win.
Seeing an Italian defence carved open that way is beyond comprehension. Quagliarella gave Italy another chance by scoring on a long shot with minutes remaining but one can't expect to be rewarded after doing so little.
It is the first time since 1978 Italy has gone out in the group stages. But this elimination will reverberate throughout Italy.
Playing in a group with Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia -- one of the weakest in this World Cup -- Italy was never able to exert its will.
"Going home in shame," was the headline of the online edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport. Manager Marcello Lippi took full responsibility for the debacle.
"It's my fault and only mine," Lippi said. "If a team goes to an appointment this important with fear in the legs, their head and their heart, it shows that the manager didn't prepare the team properly psychologically, technically and tactically but most of all psychologically."
He admitted this loss would haunt him for years to come.
"I was prepared for anything but not how the team played in the first half," Lippi said. "It will bother me until I die closing out my experiences this way. I won't tell you that I was counting on winning another World Cup; I definitely didn't count on finishing like this."
Lippi picked the wrong players and insisted on playing a style that his players couldn't sustain and was almost unwatchable.
But there's plenty of blame to go around. Many of the Italians, especially the strikers, might as well have stayed home.
Not much was expected of Italy going into this World Cup. That expectation, it did fulfil.