Italians setting out to erase 'blackest page' in history

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The Independent Football

Even by their standards, Italy's progress in this World Cup has been tortuous. Uncertain over team selection, riddled with injuries and hampered by apparent indolence, a place in the last 16 was only ensured by Ecuador's unlikely victory over Croatia in the last group match. The accepted current thesis is that the three-times champions will now engage a forward gear, not top just yet, and chug quietly into at least the semi-final.

Even by their standards, Italy's progress in this World Cup has been tortuous. Uncertain over team selection, riddled with injuries and hampered by apparent indolence, a place in the last 16 was only ensured by Ecuador's unlikely victory over Croatia in the last group match. The accepted current thesis is that the three-times champions will now engage a forward gear, not top just yet, and chug quietly into at least the semi-final.

On the evidence of the past fortnight, it is a dangerous assumption. Italy need little reminding of the threat carried by South Korea after their northern neighbours wrote what one Italian newspaper called the "blackest page of Italian football" back in 1966. A diet of cabbage, cucumber and onions fuelled the heroics of Pak Doo-Ik and his compatriots 36 years ago, but a 1-0 victory ensured a special place in World Cup history for the North Koreans and a tomato-spattered welcome home for such mighty stars as Gianni Rivera, Giacomo Bulgarelli and Sandro Mazzola.

But if the South Koreans inflict a similar humiliation on the Italians, it will not so much be a shock as a further indication of the shifting dynamics of world football, outlined by Bruce Arena yesterday. "There's no longer an established football world," said the US coach after guiding his team through to the quarter-finals.

In 1966, the North Koreans were instructed to play Chollima football in honour of a mythical horse, who is reputed to have once run 1,000 miles in a day. By the end of the night in Taejon, the stamina and willpower of the Italians will have been subject to an equally searching examination. "They don't like to feel the pressure," said South Korea's coach Guus Hiddink of the Azzurri.

Italy, quite possibly without the injured Alessandro Nesta and certainly without the suspended Fabio Cannavaro, will feel both tonight. With 40,000 fanatical Red Devil worshippers to greet them, they will also feel a long way from Rome.

It was somehow appropriate that the Italians were forced to play their final group match in Oita, just south of Beppu, a holiday resort famous for its 3,000 sulphuric springs. Giovanni Trapattoni's controversial selection policy has caused a similar stink in the Italian press, who cannot fathom the reasons for the initial use of Francesco Totti as a striker, the elevation of Filippo Inzhagi above Alessandro del Piero and Vincenza Montella, and the increasingly blind faith in the ageing Paolo Maldini. At least when he makes his 126th international appearance, the captain of Italy will not be the most decorated player on the pitch. That accolade, assuming his selection, will belong to Hong Myung-Bo, who will win his 129th cap for South Korea.

Trapattoni refused to confirm Del Piero's inclusion in the starting line-up for the first time this tournament. But the likelihood is that the Juventus striker, who rescued an abysmal performance against Mexico with a late equaliser, will play ahead of Inzaghi and, though no decision will be taken on Nesta's swollen ankle until the last moment, that Mark Iuliano will be drafted in to the backline. Italy's defence, once regarded as impregnable, has been unconvincing in this tournament and fell into particular disarray against Croatia.

The key figure for Italy will be Christian Vieri, scorer of three of his country's four goals so far. Tactics, he says, are all the same to him. "One striker, two strikers, three, it's not a problem. I'm a striker. I just need to score goals."

As the Italians have gone out of the last three World Cups in shoot-outs, the prospect of penalties offers little salvation. But an Italian dance troupe, who have been touring South Korea, have promised to lend their support to the side. Just in time, perhaps, to prompt an Italian renaissance.

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