SVK 3 ITA 2 and PAR 0 NZL 0: Summer of ’74

“DID they think that these overpaid, arrogant, childish, spoilt footballers, who barely trained – and whined after every tackle – would be successful in a tournament designed to reward fit, well-prepared, down-to-earth players who don’t want to be in glossy magazines?”

That was the damning verdict of L’Europeo magazine on Italy’s World Cup squad, shockingly eliminated in the group stages. In 1974. It’s proof that footballers were considered overpaid long before anyone had heard of the Champions League.

Fabio Capello was one of the few Italy players to escape criticism for their shambolic performance in West Germany 36 years ago, in what was his only World Cup as a player. He’s doing slightly better as a manager this time around, which is more than can be said for his native country.

(On the subject of which, let’s quickly check out the mood in the England camp after yesterday’s win over Slovenia.)

(Well, slightly more optimistic than before, I’m sure you’ll agree.)

If England want an idea of how their World Cup might have panned out had they not got their act together against Slovenia yesterday, a glance at events in Johannesburg this afternoon would have told them.

Italy, like England, began with two draws, one disappointing, one downright embarrassing. Italy, like England, have seen big names underperform. Italy, like England, were expected to get their act together in their third game against weaker opponents.

But while England upped their game, Italy certainly did not. The result – elimination and humiliation.

Sure, Italy can point to injuries. They lost goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon at half-time in their first game, while playmaker Andrea Pirlo missed their first two matches with a calf problem and appeared only as a second-half substitute here.

At the same time, though, their aging defence has looked creaky, and their attack too often ineffective. Their first-half performance was hopeless, and they couldn’t do enough in the second to save themselves. And no Italy squad should be finishing below New Zealand in a World Cup group.

It was a weird afternoon. With three of the previous four games in Group F having ended as draws the permutations were almost endless. Trying to figure out who needed what to qualify for the knockout stages was a bit like trying to answer one of those logic puzzles:

If Vladimir’s team have one point, Gerardo’s team are travelling through a tunnel at 37mph and Ricki’s team made £13.70 from a car boot sale, how many goals must Marcello’s team score?

The answer, it turned out was three. A 3-3 draw would have taken Italy through on goals scored because Paraguay and New Zealand played out a largely event-free 0-0 in Polokwane (a game which earned both sides one point in the World Cup Gubbometer). Astonishingly, New Zealand will leave the tournament unbeaten, although they looked almost as knackered as John Isner by the end.

And Italy, for all their ineptitude, could have saved themselves. Two down to a Robert Vittek double going into the last 10 minutes, Italy pulled one back through Antonio Di Natale. Then substitute Fabio Quagliarella – who looked very lively – turned a low cross into the net, only to be denied by a former Crystal Palace trainee.

Linesman Darren Cann was on the books at Selhurst Park in the early 1990s, but never made the grade. He’s probably not very popular in Italy right now, particularly as he had earlier ruled that a Quagliarelli shot had not crossed the line before Martin Skrtel cleared it.

And while all this was going on, Paraguay and New Zealand continued to go about making a 90-minute video for Del Amitri’s hit Nothing Ever Happens.

It was all happening at Ellis Park, though. Slovakia set about trying to make a video for Owen Paul’s long-forgotten 1986 hit My Favourite Waste Of Time, annoying Italy immensely. (Then again, it was an annoying song.)

But on the counter-attack, they still managed to make it 3-1 thanks to Kamil Kopunek’s very cool finish. And still it wasn’t over. Quagliarelli lofted in a beautiful chip to get the goal he deserved, Italy threw just about every outfield player forward, and Slovakia continued to waste time. After six minutes of injury time, referee Howard Webb blew his whistle.

Goodness knows how Slovakia managed such a dramatic transformation. A team who showed next to no attacking verve in their first two games suddenly discovered a sense of adventure. And as a result, the world champions are out. Italy’s squad might want to avoid returning home for a while, given their likely reception. The abuse that the Class of ’74 got may seem tame by comparison. 

World Cup Gubbometer

1. Algeria: 2 (CI: 2/3)
2=. Cameroon: 1 (CI: 1/2)
2=. Ivory Coast: 1 (CI: 1/2)
2=. Japan: 1 (CI: 1/2)
2=. Portugal: 1 (CI: 1/2)
6=. England: 1 (CI: 1/3)
6=. France: 1 (CI: 1/3)
6=. New Zealand: 1 (CI: 1/3)
6=. Paraguay: 1 (CI: 1/3)
6=. Slovakia: 1 (CI: 1/3)
6=. Uruguay: 1 (CI: 1/3)
12=. Everybody else: 0

CI=Capello Index

(NB. Teams are awarded one point every time they take part in a game so mind-numbingly tedious that it would almost certainly have been last on Match of the Day had it been a Premier League fixture. In this case, it was Paraguay 0 New Zealand 0. Teams level on points will be separated by the Capello Index – the number of points divided by the number of games played.)

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