Referee bears brunt of Italian fans' anger

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The Independent Football

Sweat and tears poured down the incredulous faces of Italy fans, blinking in the daylight as they emerged from bars and houses throughout the country yesterday afternoon. They refilled piazzas deserted for two-and-a-half hours while the public gaze was unified on one patch of grass thousands of miles away. Faces were set in visible discomfort that owed little to the heat, which, in some parts, reached almost 40 degrees in the shade.

Sweat and tears poured down the incredulous faces of Italy fans, blinking in the daylight as they emerged from bars and houses throughout the country yesterday afternoon. They refilled piazzas deserted for two-and-a-half hours while the public gaze was unified on one patch of grass thousands of miles away. Faces were set in visible discomfort that owed little to the heat, which, in some parts, reached almost 40 degrees in the shade.

In the shadow of Milan's cathedral, 50,000 people gathered in the vast Piazza del Duomo to watch the match against South Korea, while in Rome disbelief was reflected off giant screens in Piazza del Popolo, where 2,000 people had shrugged off the heat. There, tears streamed at the "Golden Goal" but, primarily outpourings were of fury towards the Ecuadorian referee. Byron Moreno. "Death to the referee!" came the chants. "Red card! How is that possible. It should have been a penalty in our favour," raged Carlo, a student, livid when Totti was sent off.

Immediately after the game, the entire nation seemed to be frozen in disbelief. Then a kind of collective sullen mood set in, with anger over the referee's decision bubbling out.

The football commentator Fabrizio Maffei likened the referee to a cold-hearted surgeon. Italy were eliminated "by a scalpel," Maffei said, adding after a dramatic pause: "only with no anesthesia."

Near a screen in Rome's main Termini station, the haunt of a large proportion of the city's immigrant community tempers turned on a small group of Koreans who were celebrating their country's triumph. Police had to escort the group to safety as they fended off plastic bottles of water hurled at them. "We are afraid. They have frightened us," one Korean fan told journalists. "This evening we hope to celebrate. We don't know where, probably not in a Korean area because we are afraid of aggression."

The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, joined the public mourning. Avowed fan and former owner of Milan, he had joked at the start of the World Cup that the team could not return, should they lose. "Shame. Shame. Really I don't know what to say. Like all the other fans, I can only say that I am very sorry."

In Italy, where it seems football and Catholicism are two national religions, a dead quiet had swathed the streets during the match, broken abruptly with roars from basements and through windows when the Azzurri scored their one goal. Romans scuttled to bars and houses like rabbit holes leaving only tourists to battle with televisions for the attention of any shop assistants forced to man tills.

But at the final whistle, fallen faces lined the bus queues. The traffic had no voices to overwhelm. A scooter wove through the traffic with the Italian flag furled, and in the street stalls vendors lamented over the blue shirts swinging on their hangers.

"The net was open, and every time Italy missed it," said one angry fan.

"This won't be the end," vowed another Azzurri follower. "There'll be an investigation. You'll see...."

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