Azzurri left feeling blue
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
The Italians, engulfed by paranoia and apprehension at the prospect of a premature exit, paid for a slow start to UEFA EURO 2004™.
Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of the sub-plots which surrounded today's concluding matches in Group C. Italy took to the field at the Estádio Afonso D. Henriques to tackle Bulgaria in the knowledge that even a record UEFA European Championship victory would not be enough to earn a place in the quarter-finals if Denmark and Sweden drew 2-2 50 kilometres south in Porto.
With seven of their 97 previous Scandinavian derbies having ended 2-2, the Italians - engulfed by paranoia and apprehension at the prospect of a second premature exit from a major tournament - were convinced that an eighth was inevitable. Italy's state broadcaster, RAI, stationed a camera behind each goal in the Estádio do Bessa Século XXI in an attempt to identify any skulduggery on Denmark or Sweden's part, while Gennaro Gattuso called for 50, adding: "Then we'll see how they behave themselves."
Conspiracy theories aside, it was entirely of Italy's own doing that they found qualification out of their hands at the start of play. After a lack of adventure saw them draw their opening match 0-0 against Denmark, the Azzurri were then punished for defensive substitutions against Sweden, who scored late on to draw 1-1 in a game during which Italy had played some of the most fluent football of UEFA EURO 2004™.
The fallout from that draw had seen Christian Vieri, profligate in Porto, turn on the Italian press corps, ending a stormy conference by saying: "I am more of a man than all of you put together." The fact that a knee injury, or poor form (another conspiracy), prevented him from starting against Bulgaria meant the manly duties fell to S.S. Lazio's Bernardo Corradi, a striker more gritty than graceful.
Perhaps grit would be the more desired quality here, after all grace did not get Spain very far and the Netherlands are struggling. If it was, Italy did not show it in having to wait 14 minutes for an opening, Corradi forcing an acrobatic save from Zdravko Zdravkov and Alessandro Del Piero stabbing the rebound wide.
An impromptu rendition of "Italia, Italia" brought news of a Danish goal in Porto, but failed to rouse the indolent Italian players who fell behind when Bulgaria's Martin Petrov stroked in a penalty after Dimitar Berbatov had been wrestled to the ground by Marco Materazzi shortly before the interval.
The situation demanded an abandonment of pragmatism and an embracing of adventure as Italy had never before come from behind to win a European Championship finals match. They did just that, taking three minutes of the second half to draw level when Simone Perrotta bundled the ball in after an Antonio Cassano shot had struck the bar; it was not pretty but quarter-final berths are not a reward for artistic impression.
Vieri then came on with a point to prove, and the RAI cameramen in Porto were put on red alert when Denmark moved 2-1 in front after Henrik Larsson had levelled. They did see a fourth goal and the conspiracy theorists were satisfied. There was still time for a Cassano winner, by which time Francesco Totti, Fabio Cannavaro and Gennaro Gattuso - all suspended - had vacated their seats.
The Italian media had not, however, and their was much sword-sharpening going on long after the players had retreated to the dressing room to contemplate a campaign in which internal strife, individuality and a lack of discipline cost them dearly. If the Spanish faced an inquisition upon arrival home, an onslaught awaits Italy.