Even if Italian football association had left a horse's head on his pillow last night, there still would have been be no clearer sign that Marcello Lippi's reign as coach of the Italian national team was over than the abject performance of the team against Slovakia and the uncharacteristically graceless reaction of the normally charming Lippi to Italy's expulsion from the competition.
Finishing bottom of one of the easier groups is a sad way for the international careers of players such a Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Mauro Camonaresi, Luca Zambrotta and Andrea Pirlo to end. But end they must and the managerial career of Lippi must also conclude with a bitterly disappointing final chapter. What would be the point of continuing and inviting further opprobrium ? This sorry episode has tarnished their reputations enough without running the risk of the memories of them in their prime fading completely.
The old footballing adage that you should never go back has never looked so accurate. But , having won this competition with the Azzurri four years ago, Lippi couldn't resist one last hurrah, even though the writing was on the wall for this team two years ago at the European Championships, when they were outclassed by the Dutch and only qualified for the quarter finals by beating an equally appalling France (there is a pattern developing here).The team looked over the hill then with only Pirlo and Cassano providing any sort of invention.
Lippi then returned in place of Roberto Donadoni and through an uninspiring but relatively comfortable qualifying stage, the notoriously critical Italian sports media savaged him for the faith he showed in the old guard This column had expressed doubts about whether La Nazionale had the "legs" to go reach the final again but they were at least expected to win their group.The old guard were retained , though way past their best because adequate replacements had not been discovered.
Of the Italian new wave in South Africa, Claudio Marchisio was anonymous ,Simone Pepe earned at least one man of the match award for running up and down the wing to no discernible purpose and Ricardo Montolivio looked completely out of his depth in place of the injured regista Andrea Pirlo. Indeed it was only when the gifted Milan playmaker made his first appearance of the finals , with twenty minutes remaining of the final match against Slovakia, that Italy started to play , he actually started to take the ball from his defenders playing passes and beginning attacks. The fact that some of the Italian forwards spurned a number of those chances created in a grandstand finish may have had been down to the culture shock of actually having chances following 180 minutes of sterile football against Paraguay and New Zealand. Italy , as is too often the case, waited until they were on the brink of elimination before they showed any inclination to take risks and try and win the game. They eventually paid the price for this and the fact that the English match officials made dreadful errors in disallowing two Italian goals will not shield coach and players from the responsibility for this debacle.
The biggest criticism that can be levelled at Lippi was the negativity of his tactics and squad selection. Playing with one man up front and a tall striker (Iaquinta) hopelessly miscast as a wide player , a worryingly common trend in football these days ,showed a distinct lack of ambition, not taking a player like Antonio Cassano, who had a superb season with Sampdoria and was a major influence on Samp. striker Pazzini being third top goalscorer in Serie A, seems in hindsight to be a mistake, bordering on negligence. Cassano has his critics, he is an unpredictable maverick with a potential for indiscipline, but he makes things happen on a field. That is just the type of player Italy was lacking ,to link a solid , industrious but prosaic midfield to an isolated forward line starved of service. That Lippi did not take him is not a surprise, players like Cassano have been ignored or underused in calcio for years now , certainly since Roberto Baggio retired.
Italian football is at the crossroads and ,as Fabio Cannarvaro said today on announcing his retirement, it must change. Riven with match fixing scandals and wedded to the cautious , ultra defensive belief of catanaccio , matches are played in decaying stadia ( the exceptions being the Meazza in Milan, the Luigi Ferrari in Genoa and the Stadio Olimpico di Torino) to fewer and fewer people. When the English Second Division(now ludicrously repackaged as the "Coca-Cola Championship"!) has a higher average attendance than Italy's Serie A ,where football is considered an alternative religion ,something must be badly awry.
In the mid eighties the English ruled Europe at least a club level, then came Heysel and the subsequent ban on their clubs competing in European competition.As England withdrew into herself , Italy filled the void . Restrictions on foreign players had recently been relaxed and the cream of world football flocked to the peninsula. Calcio was booming and at the vanguard was Milan, rescued from disaster by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi . To the consternation of the media and coaching fraternity he plucked an unheralded young coach Arrigo Saachi from the obscurity of Serie B Parma. Sacchi had never played professionally, uttering the immortal line when his credentials were doubted "I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first, but he had been reared on the attacking football of the great Hungarian side of the 1950s , the legendary Real Madrid side of PuskasGullit, van Basten and Rijkaard, allied with Italian stars Baresi, Maldini Ancelotti and Donadoni were moulded into an attacking unit unseen in Italy since Helenio Herrera invented the catanaccio defensive system at Inter in the sixties. Two European Cups and one Italian championship were won in the four years Sacchi coached at San Siro and the attitude of Italian coaches began to change. When Italy failed to win the World Cup they hosted in 1990 with the decidely old school Azeglio Vicini at the helm , the obvious choice to replace him was Sacchi.
He guided the Azzuri to the final in America in 1994 but when Roberto Baggio's decisive penalty kick soared over Brazil's crossbar into the Pasadena sky it was the beginning of the end . By 1996 he was gone and Italy's decline began as England re-emerged from its self imposed exile. Fuelled by satellite t.v. money and a reconfigured top division now called the Premiership, the top stars began the migration from Italy to England and English clubs were soon dominating European competition as Italian tactics at club and international level reverted to type.
By 2006, the Premiership was the richest and most popular league in the world while Italian football struggled to sell its foreign broadcasting rights .Even the improbable Italian World Cup victory that year failed to stop the rot.
There is talk in Italy of copying the English example, creating it's own Premiership and the sooner it happens the better but until another Sacchi arrives and is given time in the cut throat world of Serie A to develop attacking teams that are successful, Italy may struggle to qualify for international tournaments in the future let alone win any them.