The mourning after Italy's night of misery

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY; Defeat has sent a nation into shock. Andrew Gumbel reports from Rome

It's been a beautiful few days in Italy, all blue skies and cool early morning breezes, but I don't get the impression anyone has noticed. Last weekend, there was no sign of the usual crush to get to the beaches and lakes within striking distance of the big cities.

The bars and ice-cream shops on the piazzas of small country towns were doing a fraction of their usual business, and the few people out on the streets exchanged greetings in the low tones of mourners at a funeral.

Since last Friday night, when the Italian national team unexpectedly went down 2-1 to the Czech Republic at Anfield, the entire country has been in a state of shock.

Football has been the only discernible topic of conversation, at least for those feeling strong enough to talk in the first place. Like victims of a collective bereavement, the remarks have been high on overwrought emotion and low on rational analysis, an erratic parade of anger, denial, grief and fear - fear of what will happen tonight when the national team faces the unenviable challenge of having to beat Germany or else fly home from Euro 96 in disgrace.

Can football really be this important to Italians? Yes, it can. The attitude towards Arrigo Sacchi, the team coach who dropped his two most successful players, Gianfranco Zola and Pier Luigi Casiraghi, from the starting line- up against the Czech Republic, has been little short of murderous. Saturday's Corriere dello Sport headlined its front page "Sacchi, you asked for this" and, in common with the rest of the press, tore apart his handling of the game step by step.

Luigi Apolloni, the Parma defender sent off for two yellow cards after an indifferent performance, has been branded public enemy number one. The silver-haired Fabrizio Ravanelli, the Juventus striker, is in the doghouse, too, because he clearly wasn't up to peak fitness on the night. And so the post-mortems have gone on, uncompromising and full of righteous indignation.

To this distinctly lukewarm follower of the game, football seems to bring out the very worst in Italy, turning the country into a nation of petulant teenagers who want everything to go their way all the time and grow instantly bolshy when the slightest hitch holds them up. Their moments of joy are suspiciously over-confident, their lows all slavering self-pity and melodramatic recrimination.

Reading the sports press, one phrase pops inevitably into my head: grow up. Don't take it all so seriously. OK, so the team screwed up, but that doesn't mean the whole country has to go on hold. Actually, I've been taking perverse pleasure in arguing Sacchi's side of the story. After all, it's not so long ago that he was lionised as the architect of Italy's glorious victory in their opening game against Russia.

Of course he had to hold Zola and Casiraghi back, I say; neither was in top physical form and their energies needed to be spared. Zola was still recovering from dysentery and Casiraghi had complained of stomach cramps in training. Yes, it was fine leaving the field without a top-flight defender after Apolloni was sent off - after all, the Italian side has struggled through far worse with 10 men before. As for the decision to play Ravanelli at less than top form, well, he had gone on to the field for Juventus in the European Cup final against Ajax last month in a similar condition and played like a dream. The fact that he didn't do the same last Friday was just bad luck.

As Sacchi himself has said: if his tactical manoeuvres had worked out, he would have been a hero. So it seems churlish and immature to blame him because the team did not live up to his expectations. The truth is that football is a team effort. "When we win, we are all good. When we lose, the fault is collective." Go, Arrigo, sock it to them.

And so to tonight's challenge against Germany. There is a saying in Italy that the national football team always messes up when things are going well but pulls out the stops when the pressure is on. Right now, that dictum is the only thing keeping this manic-depressive excuse for a country from slitting its collective wrists. When Germany walked all over Russia on Sunday night, the reaction around here was akin to an epileptic convulsion.

If Italy win, I will have to put up with another nauseating outpouring of self-congratulatory glee. My footie-mad friends won't forgive me for saying so, but I'll be much happier if they lose. It'll bring this crazy national psychosis to a rapid, if brutal close. I know the country will get over it, just like it recovered from its ignominious early exit from the Mexico World Cup 10 years ago. And in the meantime, I can look forward to having the beach to myself this weekend.

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