Marcello Lippi’s Italy went to South Africa as defending champions, write Mark Siglioccolo and Aman Sehdev, but endured a miserable and brief campaign.
The Italian media lamented the Azzurri's lack of options when pushing for a winner and were all in agreement that it was a lucky point to gain. Tuttosport summed up the mood of a nation: “It was not the result Lippi hoped for but it could have been worse. Italy were confused and at times distracted. For Italy there is plenty of work to do.”
A slow start then, but nothing to panic about just yet. After all, historically the Azzurri had more often than not been slow starters in most Mondiali, before turning up the heat in the latter stages. Lippi, with his trademark assured arrogance, certainly seemed reluctant to pick fault with his side.
“I’m happy because we played as a team, but it’s a shame not to have won because we deserved to. By the end our opponents had handed us control and they didn’t create any danger in the second period, we didn’t even let them have a single shot on goal. We still have to improve, however.”
Unfortunately, improve they did not. The next opponents were New Zealand, the lowest ranked team in the tournament and surely no match for the defending Champions. Yet the inconceivable happened, as just seven minutes into the match the All Whites had taken a shock lead via a rather hopeful cross floated into the area.
Shane Smeltz coolly tucked it away past a flailing Federico Marchetti, but he forgot to thank the man whom provided the assist, Fabio Cannavaro. The heroic captain of four years prior looked a shadow of his former self and he was guilty of not only failing to clear the cross, but unwittingly steering it directly into the path of the onrushing striker.
Italy were stunned, but it did not take long for them to equalise as 22 minutes later De Rossi was tugged back in the opponents’ half and was awarded a penalty. Without Pirlo absent, spot kick duty fell to Vincenzo Iaquinta and he dispatched it with authority to the keeper’s left.
As the match wore on, Italy began to exercise a measure of control without really looking like scoring a second. Short of a classic trequartista, the Azzurri appeared toothless up front and were reduced again to long-range efforts. Montolivo hit a spectacular swerving shot that hit the inside of the post and somehow ricocheted across the goal-line to safety. In the closing stages of the tie, New Zealand had a chance to steal it when Chris Wood saw his shot miss by mere inches.
Man of the Match De Rossi was candidly honest in his post match reaction: “We'll have to improve quickly, because otherwise we won't be going far. We weren't at our best and we can do a lot better than that. It's not a problem with our forwards – it's the whole team that didn't play well.”
The result left Italy needing to avoid defeat against Slovakia. De Rossi failed to heed his own words as he tried to play out from the back but instead passed straight to Erik Jendrisek, who then teed up Robert Vittek for the opener. What followed was a spectacular implosion of a poorly conceived team who not once displayed the air of Champions.
A 3-2 defeat perhaps somewhat flattered Italy as their late rally with goals from Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella came too late to salvage a result. With that, the four time winners and defending Champions were eliminated and to add insult to injury, finished rock bottom of a group which should have been a formality.
Even in the Vuvuzela din of Ellis Park where it should have been impossible for a man to collect his thoughts, the face of every single Italian player spoke volumes.
This time, there was no second chance for Lippi. The man who said four years prior that should his charges lift the trophy in Berlin he would shave his head before going back on his word, cut a very regretful and disconsolate figure after the humiliating elimination in South Africa.
“I assume complete responsibility for this failure. I was convinced this squad could do a lot better than that – not win the World Cup, but do a lot better.
“When a team goes into a match as important as this with fear in the stomachs and paralysis in their legs, it’s because the Coach hasn’t prepared them well enough mentally, physically and tactically, but above all mentally. That’s obvious.
“I offer my apologies to Italian sport, the players, the football association – everyone. I’m very sad that my adventure with the Italian football association has come to an end in this fashion. Thank you to everyone for all my years at the helm of La Nazionale and good luck to my successor.”
When Lippi initially resigned after the 2006 triumph the jubilation of the fans after an arduous 24 year wait soon turned to panic. Who would replace the man who masterminded the feat of transforming an average Azzurri team into Campioni Del Mondo? For Lippi however, the time was right. He had achieved the pinnacle of any international manager's career and rightly went out on a high.
To return certainly took courage. No nation has ever successfully defended the title since Brazil in 1962, and the challenge to emulate the Azzurri of 1938 proved to be irresistible. Yet Lippi's insistence on living in the past proved costly as he failed to rejuvenate his squad sufficiently.
Clearly the thought of leaving ‘The Berlin Wall’ at home never even crossed his mind, but it was plain to see that Cannavaro's best days were long behind him. Four years behind him in fact. Drafting Di Natale and Quagliarella into the squad was a positive move which actually produced Italy's finest moments, but in what proved to be their worst ever World Cup outing.
Spain marched to the final and made history by not only lifting the trophy for the first time, but by also being the first ever nation to do so having lost their opening match. The final was painful to watch at times, not least for the number of crunching tackles that Holland inflicted on their Spanish counterparts.
In a Mondiale that was supposed to show the Azzurri's true colours, more questions were raised than answered. It was just too noisy for the players to hear them...