Italy out of Africa and Lippi out of excuses


SOCCER/GROUP F: SLOVAKIA 3 ITALY 2:THIS IS not the most silken tournament in World Cup history but it is the most democratic. On a thrilling afternoon in Johannesburg, Slovakia not only knocked out Italy, the reigning champions, they condemned them to a last-place finish in the group.

Incredibly, after France’s inglorious departure on Tuesday, the two previous finalists will not be in the second round for the first time at a World Cup.

Even New Zealand, the team with amateur players in its ranks, finished ahead of the storied Azzurri as they battled gamely to earn a draw against Paraguay.

What an evening for Slovakia. There was nothing thieved about this result. The Slovakians were confident, organised and had the sharpest finisher on the field in Robert Vittek, whose two goals were classically Italian in stealth and deftness. The third, a lob from substitute Kamil Kopunek after a brilliantly timed run through Italy’s penalty area, was the final insult to the departing champions.

After 99 electrifying minutes, the game was up and Marcello Lippi, who had watched the drama of the game in growing disbelief, was the first man to enter the tunnel in Ellis Park. Lippi has masterminded club and international wins in every honour of the game and this was a sad way to leave his international post.

“I take all responsibility for what happened,” Lippi said, sweeping into the press room and not even waiting for the first question.

“All responsibility, because if a team shows up at such an important game just like tonight’s game, with terror in their head, their heart and their legs, and if a team is simply unable to express its abilities, it means that the coach didn’t train that team as he should have done, psychologically, technically or tactically. Especially it’s the psychological matter. All the responsibility is on me. I’m really sorry . . . I would have expected everything or anything except to see the performance we saw in the first half, not to mention the second.

“Let me say how sorry I am to end my experience with the federation in such a fashion. I didn’t expect to win the World Cup, but I did expect to perform differently. I take on all responsibility for the choices that I made and the way I introduced this team to you.”

But this match will undoubtedly remain one of the glittering memories for Vladimir Weiss when he enters his dotage.

The volatile Slovakia manager showed up for this appointment in a suit that spoke of a man who had left a late night poker game in Bratislava around 1979. By the end of the match, the pinstripe suit and pale blue tie seemed perfectly suited to the enormity of the occasion for his nation.

Everything went beautifully for Slovakia. In addition to the rampant Vittek, they had key performers in Martin Skrtel, who led his team during Italy’s quixotic comeback and was perfectly placed to stop a fine volley from Fabio Quagliarella when Italy were pressing hard for a second goal.

Goalkeeper Jan Mucha made several fine stops, infuriated the Italians with his showmanship injuries and became involved in a messy confrontation with Quagliarella in the seconds after Antonio Di Natale’s goal signalled an explosive close to the game.

The Udinese man exacted some measure of revenge on Mucha by firing one of the truly beautiful goals of the tournament in the 92nd minute, when Italy were praying to the Madonna for intervention.

Miroslav Stoch also had an immense influence on this game, making the glittering Italian midfield seem static and jaded as he moved the ball with authority.

Captain Marek Hamsik also played his part. Slovakia’s second goal arose when a corner he delivered was headed back to him; he sent the ball along a slide rule for Vittek to roll past Federico Marchetti.

For Italy, the decline from their magnificently steady and controlled World Cup four years ago has been steep. Gennaro Gattuso started but made little impact and retired after half-time.

For too long, the play of front men Vincenzo Iaquinta and Di Natale was defined by anxiety: Italy’s desperation for a goal showed.

A huge cheer greeted the arrival of Andrea Pirlo, who came in when Italy trailed 1-0. Here, surely was an Italian with the kind of footwork and extravagant hair to turn things around.

But one of his earliest contributions was a failure to control the ball during a stage when bedlam reigned in the Italian back line, the very line that has always been its most constant.

Fabio Cannavaro dictated his troops and Simone Pepe provided enough ball from the right for his colleagues to feast on. But only when disaster became unavoidable did the Italians come alive for the first and last time in South Africa.

The second half of this match was wonderful, a contrast between Slovakia’s boldness and Italy’s fatally slow recognition that they were on the way out. Only when Di Natale scored did they get caught up in the melodrama of the evening.

The closing 15 minutes were like a Fellini production, anarchic and colourful and impossible to predict. Even at 2-3 down, Italy were asking for the impossible but almost 10 minutes of injury time could not save them and afterwards several of the fallen champions were in tears.

No World Cup is complete without Italian tears, whatever the cause. But few expected tears of disbelief. When they wake up today, it will truly hit home.

Italy are out of Africa.