There is truly no country for old men. Italy, the doddering old codgers were humbled, nay – crushed – by a youthful and energetic Slovakian side, to see them become the second World Cup defending champions ever to exit the tournament in the group stages, joining, you guessed it, France, which did so in 2002. The match ended Slovakia 3, Italy 2.
But first, let’s name and blame the guilty party. It has to be, fairly and squarely, the brains behind the Italian football team: the man who decided on their match strategy, the way the game should flow and the starting line-up. Name’s Lippi, Marcello Lippi. He picked almost exactly the same team that lifted the trophy in the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. That team was undoubtedly on top form back then. But four years is a long, long time in football. Lippi, once the cigar-chomping king of Italian football at Juventus, and then the celebrated hero of world football with a Fifa World Cup gold medal around his neck, has emphatically demonstrated just how old and tired he is.
Just like the French team, it’s back to the drawing board for the Azzuri. We have no doubt they will come back, as strong as ever, to fight the battles of Brazil 2014.
But let’s not detract from Slovakia’s victory. They’re a young and resilient side (Marek Hamsik, the Slovakian captain, is only 22 years old. How’s that for a bit of perspective?) Vladimir Weiss brought his team through a very tough qualifying group, beating the Czech Republic and Slovenia to get to the World Cup. Almost all of the teams that are here got here by playing good football. Italy underestimated Slovakia and paid a very heavy price for their folly.
Italy were totally out of ideas – the only change that Lippi made was to bring on a fresh pair of legs in the second half. Credit to Fabio Quagliarella – he played like his life depended on it, and crafted two excellent goals that offered a glimmer, just a glimmer, of the Slovak side’s lack of experience.
When the final whistle blew and the Italians made history in all the wrong ways, Quagliarella sobbed. He may take consolation from the fact that he will probably be one of the pillars of the new team that will be forged out of today’s ashes.
The evening belongs to Slovakia though, who will almost certainly face the Netherlands in the last 16 for their sins.
In the other match of the afternoon, Paraguay and New Zealand met in a tough encounter that ended in the goal-less draw. The result was very good to Paraguay, who won the group, but the real heroes were the New Zealanders, the lovable but tough underdogs that again refused to surrender. Although it ended in a draw, the match was a fighting affair. For a team so unfancied as New Zealand to end up being just one goal away from qualification into the next round, is a testimony to how far global soccer has come in its development. There are truly no weak teams playing in the World Cup.
Here are this reporter’s notes from the Italy-Slovakia match:
Slovakia: 1-Jan Mucha; 2-Peter Pekarik, 3-Martin Skrtel, 16-Jan Durica, 5-Radoslav Zabavnik, 6-Zdeno Strba, 15-Miroslav Stoch, 17-Marek Hamsik, 11-Robert Vittek, 19-Juraj Kucka, 18-Erik Jendrisek.
Italy: 12-Federico Marchetti; 19-Gianluca Zambrotta, 5-Fabio Cannavaro, 4-Giorgio Chiellini, 3-Domenico Criscito, 22-Riccardo Montolivo, 6-Daniele De Rossi, 8-Gennaro Gattuso, 9-Vincenzo Iaquinta, 7-Simone Pepe, 10-Antonio Di Natale.
Referee: Howard Webb (England)
Italy’s problems are rather of the type you can’t fix in an afternoon’s training session. They’ve brought an old, old side to this World Cup. Remember Fabio Cannavaro’s humiliation at the hands of the very young New Zealand striker Chris Wood?
Let’s see if Slovakia can do something to hit the Italians where they are weakest.
- 1st minute: Di Natale sets things off with a looping shot that goes over the Slovak goal.
- 3rd minute: Disappointing effort by Iaquinta, who waited upon goodness knows what before striking that ball off the edge of his boot and out. He was offside in any case.
- 6th minute: Another disappointing effort, this one by Marek Hamsik, who should have controlled the ball before attempting a shot.
- 10th minute: Free kick to Italy. Iaquinta has a little wrestling match going on with Strba, and is judged too have been too vigorous for the referee’s liking. Free kick to Slovakia inside their penalty area.
On a personal note, good to see the tough little Gattuso get a run in this World Cup. Not that I expect him to do much.
- 12th minute: Slovakia has an attempt on goal that goes absolutely nowhere.
- 15th minute: Hamsik makes a delicious run into the Italian penalty area. His low cross to Vittek is batted away by Marchetti.
- 16th minute: Zdeno Strba yellow card for a challenge on Gattuso.
- 17th minute: Pepe opts to stest Jan Mucha instead of passing to two open teammates. Poor choice. The Slovak keeper has no trouble saving the shot.
- 21st minute: Corner to Slovakia. Terrible delivery by Radoslave Zabavnik.
- 24th minute: Is anything surprising in this World Cup anymore? Robert Vittek connects to a brilliant through ball from Kucka and fires a low shot past Federic Marchetti. Slovakia lead.
An extra wrinkle to Marcello Lippi’s forehead? Oh yes.
- 30th minute: More trouble for Italy. Yellow card to Italy’s captain Fabio Cannavaro for getting in Juraj Kucka’s way. He smiles generously, but the British referee books him anyway.
- 34th minute: That was one of the most brilliant shots from distance we’ve seen in this World Cup, coming from Zdeno Strba. Federico Marchetti did ever so well to nudge it aside.
- 37th minute: Montolivo, out of options on the edge of the Slovak penalty area, opts for a weak drive that goes wide.
I don’t know how many times in my life I’m going to have the opportunity to say this, but Italy are in serious trouble here.
- 39th minute: Yellow card to Robert Vittek for a harsh tackle on Fabio Cannavaro.
Photo: Slovakia’s Kamil Kopunek scores the third goal past Italy’s goalkeeper Federico Marchetti (R) during their 2010 World Cup Group F soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 24, 2010. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
- 40th minute: What? Martin Skrtel almost scores an own goal, his clearing header only just going over his goalkeeper’s goal.
Zdeno Strba is in an enormous amount of pain. Gennaro Gattuso’s studs caught him in the knee. We’ve seen some pretty theatric diving and rolling about in this World Cup, but Strba has a vicious gash on his knee and is stretchered off. The
Slovak bench prepare a substitution, but Strba waves him away. He will soldier on, wound or no wound. You can’t fault him for bravery…
- 47th minute: Free kick to Slovakia. Will they go for goals?
- 48th minute: Kucka volleys the ball, rippling the side netting as his shot goes only inches wide of Marchetti’s goal.
Suddenly all that criticism of Jabulani doesn’t make any sense.
Marcello Lippi is playing his final hand here. Fabio Quagliarella comes on for Genaro Gattuso. Domenico Criscito makes way for Christian Maggio.
- 47th minute: Martink Srktel catches a boot in the face, courtesy of Vincenzo Iaquinta. I hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come in this match. Iauqinta goes into the referee’s book.
- 49th minute: Peter Pekarik is booked for a late tackle.
- 50th minute: Iaquinta gets a chance, but turns the header aside.
Jan Mucha is rolling about on the ground, and Howard Webb is standing above him, making just as dramatic gestures for him to get up. A bit of slapstick comedy there.
Andrea Pirlo is about to make an entrance. Not Mauro Camoranesi, then?
- 55th minute: Di Natale shunts the ball with the outside of his boot. A hamfisted attempt.
- 56th minute: Yep, Andrea Pirlo comes on for Riccardo Montolivo.
The Italians are hanging on, only just…
- 62nd minute: Another weak effort by Di Natale that poses no worries for Mucha.
- 65th minute: That was embarrassing. For Italy’s defence, that is. Miroslav Stoch beat the Italian defenders easily there. He gets a foul for muscling an Italian off the ball.
- 66th minute: Great defending by Martin Skrtel to deny the Italians a goal there. His keeper was already committed, trying to bat a cross away, and the shot by Fabio Quiagliarella was cleared quite literally on the line by Skrtel.
All of the ball across all of the line, the rules say.
- 71st minute: Mucha fists a cross away.
- 72nd minute: Chiellini slides just under Hamsik to deny the Slovak captain a shot at goal.
- 73rd minute: I don’t believe it. I simply cannot believe what I’m witnessing here. Robert Vittek sneaks in a goal from a short cross.
- 75th minute: Yellow card goes to Simone Pepe for a cynical and stupid tackle on Radoslav Zabavnik.
- 79th minute: Free kick to Italy. They take it quickly, taking the Slovaks by surprise. Even then, Iaquinta cannot get past Mucha. He was offside.
- 80th minute: Antonio de Natale finally scores. The Italian side finally manage to unpick to the Slovak defence.
Huge scrum inside the Slovakian goal. It appears as if Quagliarella tried to snatch the ball away from the Slovak keeper for a quick kick-off, and got into an altercation with Mucha. The referee, an assistant and several players get involved.
Yellow card for Mucha and Quagliarella.
- 84th minute: Fabio Quagliarella scores, but is judged to have been offside.
This is easily the most sensational match we’ve seen in this World Cup.
- 86th minute: Slovakia are going to make a change. The stoic Zdeno Strba comes off and Kamil Kopunek will take his place.
Hoo. Deep breaths, everybody.
Photo: Slovakia’s players celebrate their victory against Italy after their 2010 World Cup Group F soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 24, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius
- 88th minute: Danger again for Slovakia, the keeper called upon to challenge Iaquinta for a cross. He gets the lightest of touches on it, just barely denying the Italian strikers a crack at goal.
- 88th minute: It’s over for Italy. Dream start for Kamil Kuponek who ran on to a throw-in, beat two defenders and the goalie to score. He chipped it over Marchetti to set himself up for a goal.
- 92nd minute: Quagliarella scores! The Slovaks relaxed just a little too much, allowing Quagliarella the time to set up and shoot. Carbon copy of Ozil’s goal yesterday.
- 92nd minute: Sestak comes on for Vittek.
- 93rd minute: The last Slovak substitution. Petras comes on for Jendrisek.
- 95th minute: Pepe smacks the ball wide. That was it – the very last act of what was been, for want of another word, a crazy match. Surely?
End of the second half.
By Sipho Hlongwane
Photo: Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro (L) comforts team mate Fabio Quagliarella at the end of their 2010 World Cup Group F soccer match against Slovakia at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 24, 2010. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon