JOHANNESBURG - Italy tried to hide their
failings behind the age-old image of being slow starters but it
was age and slowness that sent them out of the World Cup with a
whimper, and now the future of Italian football is under scrutiny.
The holders slope home on Friday with their tails between
their legs after a nightmare 3-2 capitulation against Slovakia
in their final Group F game which summed up their lax
preparation and lack of confidence.
To exit the tournament in the group stage as champions is
bad enough, but to not win a match has prompted unprecedented
soul-searching in Italy, where just four years ago the streets
were filled with jubilant fans who were on top of the world.
Midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who now retires from
internationals, was brutally honest about his side's dreadful
showing in the 1-1 draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and the
shock defeat by World Cup debutants Slovakia in Johannesburg.
"Four years ago we were hailed as champions, today we are
playing like billy goats. We made a very bad impression,"
Gattuso told reporters.
"I think Italian soccer has reached the bottom and we all
have to take responsibility. The curtain falls."
The fact Italy have held their hands up and said they were
not good enough is a refreshing change compared to the moaning
which followed early exits at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004.
Back then the Azzurri and the nation blamed bed refereeing
decisions and gamesmanship from their opponents for their
departures. But this time nobody could argue that their downfall
was anything other than self-inflicted.
Coach Marcello Lippi, who may now be wondering why he ever
returned to the job in 2008 having reached the pinnacle of his
career two years earlier, was surprisingly frank in accepting
all the responsibility for the appalling performances.
"I really firmly believed that the men I chose would have
been able to offer something different," Lippi said.
"This time I wasn't capable of motivating the guys like I
should have, not to win the World Cup but to keep our standards
He now departs for a second time, a pre-arranged move which
saves Lippi some of the flak which will come the team's way,
although top sports websites were running headlines of "Back
home in shame" and "It's your fault Lippi" on their front pages.
Former Fiorentina boss Cesare Prandelli has the unenviable
task of succeeding Lippi, given the ageing World Cup squad will
now disband and there is little quality in the Italian league.
Fabio Cannavaro, 36, went from being the best defender in
2006 to one of the worst in 2010 and the fact he now heads for
semi-retirement with Al Ahli in Dubai after no one else wanted
to buy him from Juventus shows the depths to which he has sunk.
Lippi stuck by him because he felt he needed a leader with
World-Cup-winning experience but instead Cannavaro's mistakes
led to the goals for Paraguay and New Zealand while he was again
shaky against Slovakia.
The problem for Prandelli is that there is no outstanding
Italian defender around apart from Giorgio Chiellini, with squad
members Salvatore Bocchetti and Leonardo Bonucci inexperienced
and not in the class of former greats like Paolo Maldini.
An even bigger issue for Italy is the lack of pace and
trickery in the squad, with almost no options available back in
Inter Milan may be European champions but not one of their
starting 11 in the Champions League final was Italian and they
are not at all representative of the scarce talent in Serie A.
Sampdoria playmaker Antonio Cassano, ignored by Lippi, is
possibly the only Italian to have the ability to unlock defences
with a bit of magic, while Inter's reserve forward Mario
Balotelli is a teenage rebel but has pace and much-needed
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