Sacchi suffers crying game

Ian Ridley reports on a coach preoccupied with a sense of injustice
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The Independent Online
The signs were there the day before. "Every game here is a final. That's what we didn't realise," said Arrigo Sacchi, the man who has been to a World Cup final and now knows after last Wednesday's goalless draw against Germany another meaning of the word.

It is always sad to see one of the great nations of the game depart a major tournament prema- turely, though the feeling at seeing Italy go scarcely compares with that at the elimination of Brazil from the 1982 World Cup in Spain at the hands of Italy. Brazil were potentially great; the modern Italians merely good.

As he contemplates the press and public at home baying for his resignation, Sacchi will doubtless reflect on the flaws of his campaign, notably the original omissions of Roberto Baggio, his sa- viour at the 1994 World Cup, Gianluca Vialli and Guiseppe Sig- nori, compounded by the five changes to a winning side he made against the Czech Republic.

It was impossible not to feel some sympathy for him on Wednesday night. There he stood in that bench area at Old Trafford that intrudes upon the crowd, checking his watch every 30 seconds, twitching with an anxiety Graham Taylor would recognise. Certainly Berti Vogts, in a not dissimilar position with the expectation of a nation as wearisome on his shoulders, felt for his counterpart. "I think they played much better than two years ago in the World Cup," he said. "It is sad to see them go out." You half- believed him.

Afterwards Sacchi appeared close to tears as he contemplated the injustice of his team's fate, insisting they had played well, and thereby revealing a coach's feeling for his team above his own personal pain. The philoso- phical smile returned as he answered inquiries about his position. "I'm thinking many things but I am definitely not thinking about leaving," he said. Many others are, however, even though Sacchi has recently signed a two-year extension to his contract worth pounds 1.5m.

Sacchi's reputation as a manager was built during a remarkable period with Milan that saw him fortunate enough to have Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard in his charge. He took the English 4-4-2 as his model, introduced an aggressive pressing game, and with such gifted players to implement it made the club the envy of the world. He has since attempted to repeat the formula with the national team - though it seems other countries have moved on tactically - eschewing talent that could or would not apply themselves either to the system or his strict code of behaviour off the field.

Signori, leading scorer in Italy in three of the last four seasons, disagreed that he should play wide on the left - and was ditch- ed. Vialli once played a prank on Sacchi at a meal, putting Parmesan cheese in his napkin.Vialli has not appeared since. Consequently the current team has proved itself workmanlike; occasionally inspired, but too occasionally. Gianfranco Zola, though "his legs were cut away", as Sacchi said, after the missed penalty against the Germans, showed himself a gemstone but otherwise there were too few creative spirits. The too-much-too-soon Alessandro Del Piero was scarcely used. Diego Fuser, on the right, appeared merely an up-and-downer whose crossing rarely threatened a defence.

Roberto di Matteo in midfield could not find the incisive pass. Roberto Donadoni was again a willing winger on the left, tilting at the windmill one last time, but the legs that are not wanted in his homeland anymore, only the United States, ultimately betrayed him. It was significant that the two world-class players in the team, Paolo Maldini and Demet- rio Albertini, are primarily defensive. Of course the players take much responsibility; too much is often a sign to the coach. Luigi Apolloni's sending off against the Czechs was foolish. Zola's inability to convert the penalty was deserving of some empathy but was also clearly a failure, though not so crass a one as the referee's failure to send off Andreas Kopke.

Perhaps Sacchi will survive. The real thing for the Italians, rather than the European Championships in which they seem to be "bewitched", he said, is the World Cup two years hence, and the President of the Italian Federation, Antonio Matarrese, insisted that Sacchi would remain as long as he did. Matarrese is up for re-election in August.