For the second tournament in succession, Francesco Totti's self-destructive bent looks set to cost himself and his country dearly. The Roma schemer was yesterday given a three-match suspension for spitting at a Denmark player during the opening Group C fixture. The ban starts against Sweden here tonight when defeat would leave Italy in danger of elimination.
Totti, 27, was caught on camera spitting into the face of Christian Poulsen in the 0-0 draw on Monday. The Spanish referee did not see the incident, to which Poulsen, who had been jostling with Totti, did not retaliate. However, the episode was drawn to the attention of the sport's European governing body, Uefa, and the player was tried and convicted yesterday.
The charge of "gross unsporting conduct" was not denied by Totti, who offered what Uefa described as an "unreserved apology" for his behaviour. In ruling he would sit out three matches, rather than the four-game penalty that it could have invoked, the disciplinary committee also took into account what it termed "the player's previous good record".
Totti, who was last night considering whether to appeal, will also miss the final group match, against Bulgaria in Guimaraes next Tuesday, as well as the quarter-final should Italy reach that stage. It could be argued that he escaped lightly, for his so-called good record is scarred by similar aberrations.
When Italy were knocked out of the 2002 World Cup by South Korea, he was sent off for diving and proceeded to cause damage in the dressing-room. He was also dismissed on his last Champions' League appearance, for Roma against Arsenal, and was fortunate to be shown the yellow card rather than the red merited by his vicious last-minute challenge on Rene Henriksen on Monday.
Totti's defence centred on the argument that, in the pressure-cooker atmosphere, a different, more aggressive character took over the gifted, good-natured playmaker's personality. "I don't recognise myself from the images shown on TV, and I'm very distraught at what has happened," he told the committee. "I offer a full public apology and wish to make it clear the true Francesco Totti is not the one shown on the video."
The dilemma facing Italy's coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, is that he had built his side with Totti as its creative fulcrum, operating in a withdrawn role behind Christian Vieri. There is no obvious replacement, but in Italy's final training match, Totti's club-mate, Antonio Cassano, joined the "first XI" after coming on as a substitute against Denmark. Trapattoni may also make changes to a midfield that was no more than workmanlike against Denmark. Gennaro Gattuso, formerly of Rangers, and Andrea Pirlo could well start in place of Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camoranesi.
Sweden, 5-0 winners against Bulgaria in Lisbon, come into the game brimming with confidence and attacking possibilities. The form of Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front means Marcus Allback will again start on the bench, despite 20 goals in 40 caps, although Christian Wilhelmsson, an impressive substitute winger on Monday, should start in place of the injured Teddy Lucic.
* Denmark have midfielders Jesper Gronkjaer and Thomas Gravesen available for their game against Bulgaria tonight. Gronkjaer has joined the team after attending the funeral of his mother and Gravesen is back following suspension.