‘imbarazzare’ (embarrassing) ‘una baraonda’ (a shambles) ‘disonorare’ (disgrace); just some of the words used to describe Italy’s world cup performance.
Aside from the collapse of 2006 finalists France; the defending champions’ failure to even get out of their group was undoubtedly the shock of the summer. The pessimistic Azzurri followers claimed that the writing was already on the wall without a ball being kicked and it seems they were right, as their bunch of pretenders crashed out at the first hurdle for the first time since 1974, without a win to their name.
The Italians could be forgiven for their sluggish showing in their two friendlys leading up to the tournament; going down 2-1 to in-form Mexico, before grinding out a 2-2 draw with the Swiss in Geneva, despite having to do without key players including Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi. The pressure was soon heaped on the national team, especially veteran manager Marcello Lippi, with both the press and supporters calling for his resignation.
The Lippi ‘master plan’ seemed to be to stick to with the loyal (but ageing) heroes from 2006 and hope it would fall into place, but with a tournament consisting of largely young squads; it soon became apparent this had backfired. Their opening game on paper looked the most difficult of the three. The performance against Paraguay was cagier than the flare play the Italians are famous for. The driving rain in Cape Town proved an omen for the Azzurri, who fell behind courtesy of an Alcaraz header on the stroke of half time. Arguably the major blow was struck in the second half; Buffon, struggling with a persistent back injury, couldn’t continue and would play no further part in the tournament. Despite the set back, Italy forced a draw, as the ball fell for De Rossi to fire home from close range as a result of a goalkeeping howler.
A draw against the South Americans in their toughest fixture on paper seemed like, and indeed was, a decent start to the tournament, considering their next two so called ‘winnable’ games. However, their campaign started to unravel in the game against New Zealand when they only managed a draw despite being the better team and enjoying the lion’s share of the possession. Immediately on the back foot, they conceded again from a set piece. Italy quickly began to build up the pressure and in the 29th minute won a penalty, which Iaquinta converted to equalise. However, the floodgates failed to open and Italy’s lack of creative players became telling as the game wore on. A second successive 1-1 draw meant that their final game against Slovakia would turn out to be make or break.
The defensive shackles were removed sharpish, as Lippi and his men knew too well only a win would be good enough to reach the next round. But for the third successive game, they fell behind. A sloppy pass from De Rossi fell to the feet of Robert Vittek who neatly finished past the advancing goalkeeper. It became clear as the game progressed that it wasn’t to be for Italy; first a Quagliarella shot was blocked on the line by Martin Skrtel, then Vittek converted his second to all but condem Italy to defeat. There was to be a late rally from the champions though, as Di Natale reduced the deficit moments later. However in a bid to find an equaliser, Italy were caught short at the back, allowing Kopunek to nip in and lob Marchetti. They did though save the best till last, Quagliarella finding the net with an outrageous chip from the edge of the box.
The finger of blame has been pointed in a number of directions in what has become an inquest into a disastrous failure for Italian football. It is plain for all to see that the main problems lie with their own abysmal defending and lack of creativity. The stats tell all you need to know. Five goals conceded from only six shots on target. This doesn’t say much for the standard of their goalkeeping, but careless defensive lapses were just as much to blame and there was nobody at the other end capable of troubling defences. This world cup has proved to be the last for a number of Italian players, notably Cannavaro, Gattusso and Zambrotta; meaning that younger and more creative players could be handed a chance in future years, for now, the task of restoring faith and pride back into the once unstoppable footballing nation begins.