Chicanery the biggest worry for Trapattoni

 

SOCCER WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFYING:INCENSED BY the idea that Denmark and Sweden might conspire to record a high scoring draw in their final group game at Euro 2004 and so send their team home, anxious Italian journalists approached a group of their Scandinavian colleagues on the day of the game in a desperate search for information.

The thing that astonished them most, said some of those who witnessed the scene afterwards, was there was only one Swedish word for “fix” whereas there were about 20 in their own language.

The Italian team’s then manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, may well have used a few of them yesterday as he contemplated the next obstacle to be negotiated in Ireland’s campaign to reach next summer’s World Cup finals.

For it is not, he made clear yesterday, so much the quality of his side’s seeded opponents in next month’s play-offs the 70-year-old fears but rather a repeat of the political machinations he still believes have cost him so dearly in the past.

Trapattoni was not referring to the events of 2004 when he spoke but to Italy’s defeat by South Korea two years earlier at the World Cup, when Ang Jung-Hwan’s “golden goal” put the tournament co-hosts, then coached by Guus Hiddink, through to the quarter-finals.

The match was somewhat controversially refereed by the Ecuadorian Byron Moreno, who compounded a sense carried over from the group stages among the Italians that they were unwanted by harshly sending off Francesco Totti, disallowing what would have been a winning goal for the Europeans and awarding the locals a dubious penalty.

“I don’t wish to speak about Korea,” said Trapattoni yesterday before returning to the subject several times, “but Moreno was sent home by Fifa. My feeling now is it would be better for Ireland to play away first . . . I don’t want to meet another Moreno. I don’t mind who we play. Russia, France, Portugal or Greece. It’s like Formula One. One team is like the other and we’re all on the same line.

“And in Italy there is a saying: ‘There’s no point in making excuses before something happens’, so let’s wait and see. We try not to think about what happened in the past but in 2002 we had five goals disallowed. This is the situation. Japan went out before us and (because, he believed, Fifa wanted one of the hosts to progress) I said: ‘Disaster!’ ”

Moreno said last year he had refereed the game fairly but the fact he retired after serving a lengthy ban in Ecuador for adding enough time, 13 minutes, to a league game to allow a team representing an area where he would soon be contesting an election to come from behind and win, hardly undermines Trapattoni’s suspicions.

“Even the Fifa delegates that I know were incredulous,” the coach said at the time.

“I don’t speak of a conspiracy, but certainly of negative situations. These linesmen are incapable. The boys have done a great job and we have shown that we are a great squad.”

At the time, Sepp Blatter took a different view, observing that: “Italy’s elimination is not only down to referees and linesmen who made human, not premeditated errors . . . Italy made mistakes both in defence and in attack.”

The country’s press, meanwhile, were divided on whether the organisers or the players and their manager deserved more of the blame.

The editor of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Pietro Calabrese, wrote: “We were knocked out in order to level out some old problems between us and the bosses of Fifa and Uefa ... Shame on them . . . Shame on the World Cup.” But the well known writer, Michele Serra, felt Trapattoni’s weakness had been a critical factor, describing him as “a mad manager who swore, rolled his eyes, attacked people and objects . . . the whole world witnessed his memorable fit of nerves”.

The rest of Europe looked on and laughed, although the Spanish changed their tune quickly enough when they lost to the South Koreans, also in dubious circumstances, in the next round. “Italy was right,” yelled the Marcaheadline afterwards.

Trapattoni survived and, after a difficult start had again prompted talk he would be sacked, guided Italy to Portugal where a draw against Denmark in his side’s opening game immediately left them under pressure.

By the time the third group match, against Bulgaria, came around the Italians were at the mercy of their northern rivals. A draw involving four goals or more in Porto would mean certain elimination for Trapattoni and co.

“Machiavelli might have been Italian and Italians might like to think in a Machiavellian way, but it would not be possible to play for a 2-2 draw against Denmark and I don’t think it will end 2-2 – that is a very unusual result,” one of Sweden’s two coaches, Lars Lagerback, told the Italian press before the game.

But a very late Mattias Jonson goal ensured that was indeed how the match finished, prompting the Italian Federation president to accuse the two sides of collusion while admitting that, even after television channel RAI had installed additional cameras behind each goal specifically to spot any signs of wrongdoing, “proof is hard to find”.

The press played ball only briefly this time before rounding on the manager, whose decision to leave Alberto Gilardino (the scorer of Italy’s late equaliser at Croke Park on Saturday night and all three goals against Cyprus) at home was just one of those for which Trapattoni was fiercely criticised.

Gilardino had scored 22 goals during the second half of that Serie A season, including four against Udinese on the day before Trapattoni named his squad but the coach (take note Andy Reid) preferred to stick with the out-of-form Alessandro del Piero.

“If there was a conspiracy,” wrote La Repubblicathis time, “it was by ourselves; to waste chances, to be prisoners of fragile nerves, to make moronic substitutions.”

Little wonder then, Trapattoni, who said yesterday he has not yet decided whether to attend Monday’s play-off draw in Zurich, still sounds, for all his success at club level, like a man who has something left to prove back at home.