Italians exit amid tears and recriminations

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The Independent Online

In yesterday's papers, Italy's manager Marcello Lippi was exhorting his team to rediscover "the spirit of Dortmund" that brought the Azzurri back from the dead in Germany four years ago and took them all the way to triumph in the World Cup final.

But as the cries of anguish reverberated around bars and offices up and down the country, Italy departed from the finals, bottom of the easiest group in the competition, unable to clinch a single win, and the veteran coach and his team vanished with their tears and misery into the changing room.

Italian football has been through crises of every sort in the past decade, from the near-bankruptcy of major clubs, the threatened mafia takeover of at least one top club, hooliganism to rival the worst that English fans could do in the 1980s and the corruption crisis known locally as Moggiopoli.

Yet, despite increasing competition from rugby, il calcio retains a magnetic grip on the Italian public. Whole city quarters go dead when the national team plays, every goal is greeted with roars of ecstasy. When they won the World Cup four years ago, the centre of Rome came to a standstill for nights on end as fans paraded slowly and deafeningly through the city.

That victory was a triumph of grit and willpower over everybody's expectations, including those of most Italian fans. The competition coincided precisely with the climax of the corruption scandal that centred on Luciano Moggi, a former railway station caretaker who had clambered to the heights of football management by constructing a web of malleable referees to ensure that Juventus and other big clubs stayed near the top of Serie A.

Several of those clubs were sent to the dungeons of the league in punishment, provoking the departure of a flood of top players to England's Premier League. Yet despite the ignominy, the national side succeeded in shrugging it all off and playing their best.

But their hopes in 2010 looked dim from the outset. Arsene Wenger was quoted before the tournament as saying that Italy didn't have a hope in hell. Lippi had been brought out of retirement to repeat his glory of 2006, and provided a test case of reclining on laurels, picking practically the same side, now almost as old as England's, that had won in Germany, neglecting up-and-coming talent, and encouraging a mood of arrogant complacency. The outcome: Italy outdid their previous worst performance, when they were famously whipped by North Korea in 1966 in England.

Last night, Lippi salvaged a shred of dignity by emerging from his bunker to admit: "It's all my fault."

Elsewhere, however, there were counter-intuitive reactions to the national humiliation. "I can't say I'm unhappy about it," said a Roman music producer. "Every time the World Cup comes round, the Italian government takes advantage of the national distraction to ram through terrible laws. It's happening again this time. So the sooner it's all over the better."