So what now for Italy, a face-saving draw in Bordeaux secured only by Roberto Baggio's 85th-minute penalty, given for a dubious handball against Chile's sweeper, Ronald Fuentes? Assured for most of the first half, then becoming nervous, the Azzurri showed the two faces of their football.
Technically gifted, reverting to a sweeper system, they were twice punished for fundamental errors in aerial combat. First, when Ivan Zamorano's downward header fell nicely for Marcelo Salas in the 47th minute. Then, when Salas outjumped Alessandro Costacurta to put Chile ahead in the 50th minute, his 26th goal in 35 international appearances.
The ease with which Italy found space between Chile's midfield and their markers made odds of 2-7 to win their group look almost generous. The crispness of Italy's passing, especially that of Paolo Maldini, and their athleticism suggested they might be too great a problem for the Chileans, whose supporters appeared to fill the stadium.
However, Salas was always a threat, his darting runs forcing Costacurta into more desperate clearances than is normally associated with an Italian defender of repute.
Both Costacurta and Fabio Cannavaro were caught out of position when Salas jumped to send a centre from the right just over Gianluca Pagliuca's crossbar and Italy's coach, Cesare Maldini, was on his feet waving angrily when another centre caused panic in the Italian area.
Maldini would have been better pleased with the purpose of Italy's attacking play, the precision of their passing and certainly the goal that Christian Vieri scored after only 10 minutes. When Salas gave the ball away in attempting to free Zamorano it went from Maldini to Roberto Baggio, who put Vieri through with only the goalkeeper, Nelson Tapia, between him and the goal. The finish was clinical, a low shot placed just inside Tapia's right-hand upright.
With Paolo Maldini advancing along the left whenever an opportunity presented itself and Roberto Baggio instigating attacks with clever footwork and classic perception, Italy looked full of goals in contrast to the struggle they endured qualifying for these finals.
There was real urgency about their play but Chile had ideas of their own and were not about to crumble, and Salas's goal sent them in at half- time with confidence restored.
That confidence climbed even higher when Salas struck again, getting both higher and on the right side of Cannavaro to send a powerful header past Pagliuca. From assurance to a shambles. Such was the change in Italy's fortunes and their overall performance. Passes began to go astray and soon Cesare Maldini was sending on his substitutes: paranoia had set in, as dampening to Italy's spirits as the rain squalls that swept over the stadium.
Chile were playing and looking like winners, causing problems for Italy's tall defenders, making them look clumsy and ponderous. Relief almost came when Vieri was put through again only to be thwarted bravely by Tapia, and when Enrico Chiesa marked his appearance with a dart at Chile's defence that won Italy a free-kick on the edge of the area.
Chile were in no mood to hang on, mounting counter-attacks along both flanks after soaking up Italian pressure. With only five minutes left, Italy were reprieved when the Nigerian referee, Lucian Bouchardeau, gave a penalty against Fuentes for handball. Television suggested that Fuentes had not raised his arm and Chilean protests followed.
In Roberto Baggio's last World Cup match, the 1994 final in Los Angeles, he missed in a penalty shoot-out against Brazil. Here he was again carrying the responsibility of Italy's fortunes, in their opening match. He didn't miss this time, however, blazing the ball confidently past Tapia.
With Austria and Cameroon in this group, Italy could have lost and still qualified. But the damage to their morale might have been difficult to overcome. A draw achieved against a talented and enthusiastic Chilean team will be looked on as far from a shock in their homeland.
ITALY (1-3-4-2): Pagliuca (Internazionale); Maldini (Milan); Nesta (Lazio), Costacurta (Milan), Cannavaro (Parma); D Baggio (Parma), Di Livio (Juventus), Di Matteo (Chelsea), Albertini (Milan); Vieri (Atletico Madrid), R Baggio (Bologna). Substitutes: Di Biagio (Roma) for Di Matteo, 57; Chiesa (Parma) for Di Livio, 62; Inzaghi (Juventus) for Vieri, 71.
CHILE (1-3-4-2): Tapia (Universidad Catolica); Fuentes (Univ de Chile); Rojas (Colo Colo), Margas (Univ Catolica), Reyes (Colo Colo); Parraguez (Univ Catolica), Acuna (Univ de Chile), Villarroel (Wanderers), Estay (Toluca); Zamorano (Internazionale), Salas (River Plate). Substitutes: Miguel Ramirez (Univ Catolica) for Margas, 64; Sierra (Colo Colo) for Estay, 81; Cornejo (Univ Catolica) for Acuna, 82.
Referee: L Bouchardeau (Nigeria).