From the top of the world to the bottom of one of the weakest groups in World Cup history. That's the kind of turnaround Marcello Lippi and the Azzuri managed to complete in only four years.
After the triumphant campaign at Germany 2006, Italy's trip to South Africa lasted only three games, as the Azzurri weren't able to qualify from a group that included a defensive-minded Paraguay (FIFA World Ranking: 31), a young Slovakia (34), and a modest though brave New Zealand side (78).
Furthermore, the Azzurri managed to finish last in such a group, unable to win a single game (two boring draws against Paraguay and New Zealand and a shocking defeat against Slovakia) while also showing some of the ugliest football of the whole tournament—and it hasn't been a pretty one so far.
The truth is, despite history, tradition, and wages, this shameful result simply reflects the quality of this group of players—which, by the way, were not the best Italian players available at the moment. Even Marcello Lippi knows that.
With this kind of premise, you're probably not expecting my ratings to be extremely high, nor my comments particularly nice. And you're actually right.
Buffon 6: His much troubled back lasted only one half against Paraguay. He did his job until then, but his constant injuries in the last year have become a serious issue for both Italy and Juventus. No surprise the Bianconeri have already purchased another respected keeper (Sampdoria's Marco Storari) for next season.
Marchetti 5,5: You don't want to blame your second keeper in this general disaster, and actually Marchetti didn't make any Robert Green-esque mistakes. He just didn't look extremely solid, especially against Slovakia when he conceded three goals and left the impression he could do something more on each of them.
Cannavaro 4: It's hard to write off il Capitano, the hero of Germany 2006 and one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game. I still remember the 1,70m Cannavaro towering the 1,90m Tore Andre Flo back in 1998. Unfortunately, the 37-year-old Cannavaro is now a short, slow, slightly overweight defender who struggles against pretty much anyone. It happened all year at Juventus and simply continued in South Africa. I guess it could happen in his time in Dubai, too.
Chiellini 6: My almost-namesake spent all the season trying to cover Cannavaro's mistakes at Juventus, and he had to do the same during this World Cup. Considering the Bianconeri had probably the worst season in their history and Italy had their worst World Cup ever, you may say he couldn't get the job done. Still, Chiellini had a decent tournament and should be an automatic first choice at CB for years to come.
Zambrotta 5,5: Coming from a negative season at Milan—he was mainly used as a backup for the likes of Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini—the aging Zambrotta was surprisingly one of the best—no wait, less worse—amongst the defenders through the tournament. He had two solid games before disappearing against Slovakia.
Criscito 5: I expected so much more from the young left back, and I guess I wasn't the only one. Criscito simply didn't look the same player we have admired at Genoa in the last two years: He played without confidence, rarely pushing forward, and never providing threats from the left flank. As I said, we were all expecting much more than that.
Maggio 6: In as an attacking right back, he only played the second half against Slovakia. He looked pretty good as Italy pushed forward trying to get that vital draw. Maybe he should have played more minutes in the tournament, though honestly you couldn't expect Maggio to save the world by his own.
De Rossi 5: Disappointing. He scored a vital equaliser against Paraguay, won a very Italian penalty against New Zealand, and generally played like the gladiator he is in the first two matches. Then he totally disappeared in the key game against Slovakia, when he shockingly lost his man to concede the devastating third goal. I'll tell you what, you do that stuff in my ninth-tier Italian FIGC league, and you're instantly subbed and then benched for two other games. No joke.
Montolivo 6: I really liked him for the first two games, he played with flair and without fear, tried interesting passes, and also went close to scoring with his typical long range efforts. He was subbed after an uninspiring first half against Slovakia, but the 25-year-old Montolivo clearly looks the present and future of Italy's midfield.
Marchisio 4: Despite his 100-percent Juventus background, I really like this kid and I still think he has a bright future with the Azzurri, but honestly he had a terrible, terrible World Cup. Some say he played out of position or that the whole midfield struggled without Pirlo. The truth is Marchisio was supposed to be a dynamo in the heart of midfield, but he barely touched the football in the two games he started.
Gattuso 5: Started in the key game against Slovakia and showed what he had already proved during the whole season: The warrior formerly known as Ringhio (Growl) is now a washed-up, slow, ungifted midfielder who is unsurprisingly third choice for his club. What else were you expecting, Mr. Lippi?
Camoranesi 5: Came off the bench in the first two games, displaying his typical 2009-2010 performances: no pace, no crosses, no ideas, and the trademark yellow card. Again, if you have watched Camoranesi through the season, that's what you should expect from the aging, out of form, often injured winger.
Pirlo 6+: Missed most of the tournament through injury and was only able to play the final 30 minutes against Slovakia. That's a shame because Italy's midfield looked so much better led by their Maestro. Pirlo was simply the only Azzurro who was not afraid to deal with a football.
Pepe 5,5: Pretty much a mixed bag. Played with flair, energy, and passion but never managed to be really effective on the wing, and he also looked very nervous as he could have seen a red card in more than one occasion. Not sure he has the quality to be a long-term solution for the Azzurri.
Iaquinta 3: Could have been lower, but you have to give him credit for scoring that penalty against NZ. Iaquinta's fans will often use the word "versatile" to describe him. If it means he's awful both as a striker and a winger, then I agree. I truly believe Iaquinta isn't skilled enough to make the New Zealand squad: Rory Fallon has more size, Chris Killen has a better technique, and Shane Smeltz is a better finisher. But he was actually good enough to be an ever present (and I mean every minute) for Lippi. Sic—and sigh.
Gilardino 4: My Viola bias is not strong enough to absolve Gila from the general catastrophe. He wasn't able to take a single shot on goal, dribble past a single defender, or even control a single ball. I know that was not our true Gila, and to be honest the team didn't help him at all, but wow how badly did he play?
Di Natale 6: Scored an important goal against Slovakia, the first match he started. He didn't set the world on fire when he was on the field, but at least tried to test the keeper and played with some creativity. Of course, Italy has seen better No. 10s than Di Natale in their history, but the current Capocannoniere definitely deserved more playing time, especially considering such an uninspiring group of forwards.
Pazzini 5: Played only 30 minutes against New Zealand, and if possible looked even worse than Gilardino. To be honest he didn't have many chances to shine, but when he was on the field, he looked like he could spend 100 games without touching a single ball.
Quagliarella 6+: Played only the second half of the match against Slovakia, and did more in 45 minutes than all his fellow attackers combined in the whole tournament. Scored a beautiful goal, had another one disallowed, was involved in Di Natale's goal, and always tried to be dangerous with and without the ball. Looked clearly the most in form striker of the bunch.
De Sanctis, Bonucci, Bocchetti, Palombo: Didn't play a minute in this World Cup. Guess they can count themselves lucky.
Lippi: No rating. Now you'll probably think I'm overreacting, or being emotional, or simply unfair, but here's what I think: Marcello Lippi is one of the most overrated managers in the world.
Sure, he has won pretty much everything both at club and international level. But please note that at Juventus he could enjoy the "help" of consummate professionals like Dr. Riccardo Agricola (also known as Dr. Doping) and Mr. Luciano Moggi.
Without them, in his spell at Inter, Lippi never came close to his previous success, and even managed to lose a Champions League qualifying round against an obscure Swedish team.
World Cup 2006 was more like a dream/miracle, a defence led by world class players at their top (Buffon and Cannavaro) and a healthy dose of good luck, too (Italy could have been eliminated by Australia early in that tournament, and the P.K. lottery against France could have gone either way).
Well, I guess Marcello Lippi will always be in the history of Italian football, not only for that incredible victory in 2006, but also for his 2010 squad, the worst Italy has ever seen in a World Cup.