"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?
"I take full responsibility," Lippi said.
"If I was part of the success in 2006, I have to take the blame for this failure too. If a team shows up at an important game with terror in its heart and head and legs, it must mean the coach did not train them as he should have done.
"I thought the men I chose would have been able to deliver something different, but obviously I was wrong."
Well, that settles that. Simple and easy. Right?
What should be understood first are the mistakes that Lippi has made. Following Euro 2008, Lippi had a chance to completely rebuild an aging squad quickly losing their technical sheen.
Instead, Lippi took a fairly safe route and decided that he would stick with old heads to see out Italy's qualification campaign.
This meant that the newcomers of the tournament, players like Domenico Criscito, Riccardo Montolivo, Claudio Marchisio, and Leonardo Bonucci, had little to no time to acclimate to the international climate.
This also meant that young rising stars such as Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon weren't around to gain valuable upper-level experience (both of whom play in key areas that Italy had serious issues with, striker and right back respectively).
Lippi also suffered from a constant shifting of tactics, tinkering between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3, forcing players to shift their positions constantly and failing to find a consistent and workable strategic routine. He did so all throughout qualification and all throughout the World Cup. How can players gel and get used to each other's runs and positions if they never play in consistent patterns?
Marcello Lippi, in many ways, is an easy target for the Italian press and fandom. His tactical tinkering, his personal reasons behind call-ups, and his stubbornness in decision making left him wide open to attack should his team have failed in 2010.
But the convenience of this sort of scapegoating is that it masks a very real and pessimistic view of how the future of Italian football is shaping up.
In 2006, Lippi called upon the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti to be his "number 10s." Fabio Cannavaro was at the top of his game and produced some of the greatest performances by a center back at the World Cup finals. Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso became the best fullback pairing in the world.
Looking at the team sheet of 2010, there is no such excitement.
The progenitors of the '90s and early 2000s Italian dynasty of great football clubs, men like Del Piero and Totti, have long since lost the athleticism to compete at international level. Where one expected youth to replace them and continue in their vein, none have emerged.
Sebastian Giovinco was supposed to be the next Del Piero, but following years of underuse and devaluation by his club Juventus (as well as his own diminutive physicality), that talent well has quickly run dry.
Riccardo Montolivo looks nowhere near the replacement for Andrea Pirlo that Italy so desperately need. Alberto Aquilani has been so injured and out of form for the past few years that he no longer resembles the cracking midfielder that took the Italian youth setup by storm.
Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon, as per usual with Jose Mourinho's preference for strength and experience over youth talent, have played sporadically at best.
Mourinho's team that won the most recent Champions League fielded not a single Italian in the starting lineup.
What this mostly amounts to is a future of Italian talent that for the first time in decades has no youth development to fall back onto. Youth setups in many clubs have begun to lose funding as Italian clubs face the growing hole that is the credit crisis. Mismanagement of young Italian players like Alberto Paloschi have often been symptomatic of preferences to import youth and talent from abroad.
While Premier League sides do often favor foreign imports in a market that demands immediate results, most clubs realize the importance of long-term funding with regards to the youth system.
With the Championship being the most watched second division in Europe, England also has the benefit of a strong, robust, and fairly talented second tier that often serves as a platform to Premier League careers. From Phil Jagielka to Joleon Lescott to Victor Moses, the Championship can harvest the talent even if the larger clubs choose to look elsewhere.
The same unfortunately cannot be said of Italy. The Italian second divison, Serie B, suffers from a similar and often worse fate than lower-level clubs in Italy. Old, decrepit stadiums with small attendance rates means that the main value of the lower divisions comes in larger clubs loaning out their youth products. Lower divisions in Italy used to be the chief scouting ground of large clubs such as Juventus who have historically snatched up the likes of Claudio Gentile from Varese and Alessandro Del Piero from Padova This weakening of lower division standards, along with co-ownership and blind auctions of players, often breaks any growth and continuity of development.
Not having every youth player come through to the professional level is a perfectly understandable scenario. Squandering youth talent due to both process of upbringing and the lack of financial investment is not. Players like Leonardo Bonucci become the exception rather than the rule.
In a more current perspective, Marcello Lippi could've certainly done better with the resources he had. In many ways he failed to shake up a squad that desperately needed a rebuilding.
But whereas Joachim Loew had the newly refurbished resource of the Germany youth system on his side, Lippi was left with a strange paucity of talent.
Where one time the Serie A was one of the most exciting leagues in world football, teams like Juventus rely on Vincenzo Iaquinta for its goals and Zdenek Grygera as its fullback, AC Milan often fields Giuseppe Favalli and Massimo Oddo in the same lineup, and Inter has built its success on foreign imports.
During one of Italy's friendlies, an Italian fan ran onto the pitch wearing a "Call Up Cassano" T-shirt. The crowd roared and cheered as Lippi wiped his glasses and pretended not to look. He may not have foreseen the humiliating exit that Italy would go through, but he certainly refused to see the value in the man they call "Il Talentino."
But here's the question that has to be asked: If Cassano is seen as the savior of the national team, the man who inspired the term Cassanata which refers to the antithesis of team spirit, what does that say about Italy's talent?