World Cup post-game: Slovakia 3, Italy 2
Reigning champion Italy was eliminated from the FIFA World Cup Thursday following a 3-2 loss to Slovakia in Johannesburg.
Robert Vittek scored two goals for Slovakia, who finished second place in Group F and booked its spot in the round of 16.
In the other group game from Thursday, Paraguay wrapped up first place and a second-round berth with a 0-0 draw against New Zealand in Polokwane.
Italy is the country of Armani and Versace, of filmmakers Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Tornatore, of Ferrari and Maserati.
It is a nation of considerable style, where people dress up before leaving the house just to go to the corner store to buy a litre of milk, and where everyone (the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker) are obsessed with fare la bella figura — of looking good at all times.
So how is that the Azzurri, with the world watching, came up with such an unstylish, uninspired and unmoving performance against Slovakia?
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In a macabre drama that not even Fellini could have scripted, the reigning world champions crashed out of the World Cup in utter disgrace, unable to make it beyond the opening group stage.
Italy laboured through its first two matches, but was still fortunate to be in a position to control its fate heading into the showdown with Slovakia. A victory would have ensured the champions' passage into the round of 16.
It called for a sense of urgency and purposeful play from the Italians, but it was the Slovaks, facing a must-win situation, who dominated the match and had the timid and weak-willed champions chasing their tail.
Only when it went down 2-0 late in the game did the Azzurri finally wake up and play as though their lives depended on it. But by then it was too late, with faint hope of them pulling off the ultimate Italian job.
How did this happen? How did Italy go from conquerors to conquered in the span of four short years?
Ask coach Marcello Lippi, the manager who guided the Azzurri to their fourth World Cup title in Germany, for an answer — and he'll have a lot of answering to do with the ravenous Italian press ready to pick over the bones of his corpse of a team.
Lippi is undoubtedly a master tactician, but his decision to bring too many holdovers from the 2006 squad at the expense of a promising crop of Italian youngsters was a recipe for disaster.
Was Lippi's hubris so great that he couldn't see the plain truth staring him in the face? Or was he simply too loyal to the trusted soldiers that delivered one of Italy's greatest battle victories?
One can only speculate, but the Azurri's failure to make it out of the knockout stage is a damning indictment, and forces Lippi's successor, Cesare Prandelli, to take a serious and honest look at the dire state of Italian soccer.
What this result means
Paraguay wins Group F with five points, ahead of Slovakia (four points), New Zealand (three points) and Italy (two points).
Paraguay will meet the runner-up from Group E in the next round, while Slovakia faces the Group E winner.
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Kamil Kopunek's 89th-minute goal, on a lovely chip shot over the head of goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, was the difference.
Italy looked lifeless and limp right from the opening kickoff. Vittek's first-half goal merely confirmed Slovakia's dominance of the match, and his second goal with 14 minutes left in regulation allowed the Slovaks to pad their lead. Only then did Italy spring to life, twice coming back from two goals down and nearly scoring an equalizer in injury time.
Man of the match
Vittek scored twice for the Slovaks, inspiring Slovakia to its first-ever World Cup victory as an independent nation.
The Italian perspective
"We were a disappointment and everyone saw it. The difference between 2006 and 2010 is that there are no longer enough players like (Francesco) Totti and Alessandro (Del Piero). He (Prandelli) will have to start a new cycle and I hope he's got his ideas in order, because the current situation of Italian football isn't great." — goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon
The Slovakian perspective
"We've shown that we're not here for a holiday." — forward Erik Jendrisek