Rewind to four years ago to that wonderful glittering night in Berlin as Italian football rose above the diplomatic and testing troubles of their domestic game and peaked at the summit of world football once again to capture their fourth FIFA World Cup. The scenes of an unknown yet ageing left-back from Palermo stepping up from twelve yards out and netting the goal that made him a national hero and made his nation the rulers of the World are cemented into the archives of football legacy.
Four years later and those scenes of Marcello Lippi being hoisted onto the shoulders of his players clasping the eighteen carat gold prize in his hands are a distant memory for those Italian fans. Italy is no longer world champions.
Their defence of their title has ended in a catastrophic 3-2 defeat to Slovakia who themselves will proceed to the last sixteen along with Paraguay with The Azzurri finishing bottom of the group below minnows New Zealand, and without winning a single game. Prior to the finals it was always foreseen as a foregone conclusion that the stars of Serie A would cruise through to the latter stages despite their poor run of form in 2010. Yes they had failed to win a game this calendar year but this is Italy, certainties to rise above adversity and deliver in footballs biggest festival. Their collapse on the international stage will be largely blamed on an ageing squad but their experience should of been invaluable for them to cruise to the knockout rounds at least.
Italy has severely lacked a creative influence that unhinges their opposition. Andrea Pirlo eventually came on as a second half substitute after missing the opening two games due to a calf muscle problem. He was an integral element of Lippi’s World Cup venture four years ago and the lack of his presence is not solely responsible for their demise but any team would miss the attributes and traits which he possesses. They lack ideas and looked abnormally average for a team of their quality. In the opening game against Paraguay they reverted to a standard 4-4-2 formation which made them look more exhilarating but it failed dearly in their shock 1-1 draw to New Zealand as they failed to break down The Kiwis.
Despite their rocky start the Italians should have taken heart from England who themselves endured an average introduction to their African adventure and had arguably been even poorer than Lippi’s men until their victory over Slovenia. As England advanced with a spirited and determined display it is Italy who crash out of the group stage for the first time since 1974 and become the first reigning champions since France in 2002 to achieve the same feat.
The Italians began the game very positively. The passion was evidently shown once again during the national anthem from the players as their bellowed their words and pumped out their chests. It looked as if normal service was to be resumed. After a bright start which saw Vincenzo Iaquinta and Antonio Di Natale have efforts on goal the game began to drift with both sides cancelling each other out. Iaquinta did have the ball in the nest after ten minutes but referee Howard Webb ruled out the effort for a foul in the penalty area. Slovakia had a wonderful opportunity to open the scoring themselves as Marek Hamsik found himself with space in the Italian penalty area but was unable to connect properly to a lovely piece of thinking from Vittek who set up the Napoli man but subsequently mistimed his volley and the chance went begging. A warning nevertheless to the Italians.
It was Robert Vittek who opened the scoring on 25 minutes to stun the glamour boys of European football as he and Juraj Kucka exploited an characteristic error from Danielle Rossi whose misplaced pass found its way to the feet of Kucka who fed in his colleague to stroke the Jabulani elegantly from distance into the Italian net. The Slovaks made the most of an opportunity gifted to them as veteran Cannavaro and Chiellini found themselves failing to deny the opener.
A real shock to the system for the Champions who were stunned by what had just transpired. This wasn’t in their script at all and they could of been two-nil down had it not been for a smart save from Gianluigi Buffon’s deputy Marchetti who denied Strba’s 30 yard strike. As the half drew to a close the Slovaks dug in deep and frustrated their counterparts. Italy looked anything but World Cup contenders let alone reigning champions.
A sorry sight for those who have been marvelled by the brilliance of past Italian teams that have brought so much joy to the admirers of the game with their vast amount of technical prowess and flair. This side looked anything but.
Howard Webb blew up for the end of the first half just after Kucka nearly scored an absolute screamer from outside the box as his stunning volley almost found its way into the bottom left hand corner of Marchetti’s net. Italy were in deep trouble and the astute mind set of Lippi saw him change things around for the second half bringing on Fabio Quagliarella in place of Gennaro Gattuso to give the Italians more width and Christian Maggio for Domenico Criscito.
Italy looked better as they pressed for an equaliser. Finally that fighting spirit that we have become accustomed to from the boys in blue was evident once again. Andrea Pirlo was greeted to the field of play in place of Montolivo with a wonderful reception from those in Ellis Park.
Italy were agonisingly close to making it one a piece as a tantalising cross from Simone Pepe troubled the Slovakian defence which found its way to substitute Quagliarella who unleashed a fiery effort towards goal which had the keeper beaten all ends up only to be denied by Skrtels thigh.
The game began to become stretched as the Italians persistence to find a goal left space at the back and vulnerable to a counter attack as Slovakia tried their utmost to exploit. They eventually did thanks to Vittek who got his second by tucking home Hamsik’s volley into the box which beat the Italian number two at his near post. One of the biggest shocks in the World Cup’s eighty year history was unravelling before the world. Slovakia who only became an independent nation seventeen years ago were on the brink of possibly the countries greatest ever achievement as their destiny was well and truly in their own hands.
Italy looked dejected. The great Fabio Cannavaro at the age of 36 looked disillusioned and tried to fight back his seeping disappointment. The fight was back on though with ten minutes to play as substitute Quagliarella saw his effort spilled by Slovak keeper Mucha and Di Natale was on hand to poke the ball home. Italy at last were playing with some spirit and intensity as they raided upon the Slovakians penalty area fighting for their World Cup life’s and they got their reward as Quagliarella got the equaliser. So he and sixty million other Italians thought as his effort was ruled out for offside. Linesman Darren Cann may just be the most hated figure in Italy right now as the replay showed that it was ever so tight and could have easily been allowed.
The Slovakians finally put their anxiety to bed and revelled in scenes of sheer jubilation and hysteria as substitute Kamil Kopunek showed a burst of pace to latch onto a throw in and confidently lob the ball over the on rushing Marchetti to make it 3-1 and light the fuse on an explosion of joyous scenes on the Slovak bench with dejection for those in Italian blue.
Quagliarella pulled another back for Italians in the dyeing embers of stoppage time as his exquisite piece of genius saw him elegantly lob the ball from outside the penalty area which sailed into the net giving the goalkeeper no chance. Without a doubt one of the goals of the tournament even though it counted for nothing.
The final whistle sounded and Slovakia has written a famous chapter in their youthful existence. A nation that has only been independent since 1993 now finds itself knocking out one of the giants of the world game. They had an outside chance of qualification and how they have made the most of it.
Marcello Lippi didn’t hang around as he stormed down the tunnel of Ellis Park not even making eye contact with any of his peers. Captain Fabio Cannavaro in what is certainly his last ever game for the country he loves so much looked to be holding back a tear or two as he consoled a weeping Quagliarella who in truth was excellent since his introduction at half time. The contrast of scenes to those in Germany four years ago was shocking. That typical Italian fight was lacking dearly in the tournament and they never ever recovered from their poor start. It is a real shame that a team of the magnitude of Italy will now join France as another of the European elite to board an early plane home. This was the last World Cup for many of those in Azzurri blue and the nation now needs to seek to the youthful essence of those in Serie A and build for the European Championships in two years time.