"Never this ugly: Italy are coming home"—La Repubblica
"The Azzurri: defeated and shamed"—Corriere della Sera
"Tutto Nero—everything is black"—Gazzeto dello Sport
"[We are] cavalieri della vergogna (knights of shame)"—Gennaro Gattuso
On Thursday, June 24, Italy faced off against Slovakia, only needing a draw to qualify from their group.
Fans were clad in Roman gladiatorial gear, young, long-haired Italian men shouting vociferously at their on-field compatriots, beautiful female Italian fans with faces painted red, white, and green occasionally blowing kisses to their strapping athletic ambassadors.
The national anthem was belted out by the players in lionized glory. Here comes the roar of Italy. What could possibly go wrong?
For the next 60 minutes, however, something very strange occurred. After quickly falling 2-0 behind, Italy continued to fire long balls to players running into blind alleys. The defense was the most unconvincing that an Italian side had put out in decades.
The forwards, static and uncreative, looked around longingly as if to say, "Now where exactly did those wily old groundsmen put those goalposts?"
Then came the hope. In the last 30 minutes, Andrea Pirlo came on, Mr. Unsubstitutable, and the game caught fire. Italy were scoring. They were attacking. They'd pull off a miracle.
Then a long throw came over the top, Federico Marchetti horrifyingly watched it sail into his net, and Simone Pepe slid the final shot of the game wide. Game over. Italy lose 3-2 and leave the World Cup.
For the first time since the 1974 disaster, Italy were out in the group stages. For the first time since the 1970 final, in which Brazil ran rampant in a 4-1 victory, Italy conceded more than two goals in one match.
With France, you could see from afar the train wreck approaching (I predicted as much following France's 0-0 draw with Uruguay). But Italy?
What makes the situation all the more galling is that even if Italy had gone through the group, no one really believed that they would've gone on to win the World Cup. Even Marcello Lippi stated that he couldn't see Italy winning the World Cup, but that he didn't see them leaving at the group stages. His words could've been that of any Italian fan or journalist.
Italy, the current holders, a European powerhouse, never seemed to have the talent or the team technique to win a major tournament. France were undone by weak and ineffectual coaching, a lack of a world-class and charismatic playmaker, and a deep megalomania that was deeply rooted throughout the squad.
Italy had none of those divisions, yet ended up in the same position (although they arguably did worse than France, ending up bottom behind New Zealand).
How did all of this happen?