Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 41 and 42:: Group F

Slovakia 3, Italy 2
Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0

Ciao Azzuri. Italy joins France with an early departure from the World Cup. Given my ambivalence for the Italian side, it was especially gratifying to see de Rossi give away the lazy (and dangerous) central pass that led to the first Slovakia goal.

The oddest thing about this game was the last ten to fifteen minutes. Once Italy gave up the second goal, they went relentlessly on the attack, and when they scored the first goal, Slovakia (which needed a win to qualify) looked shaky. Then, as quickly as Italy established dominance, the old arrogance set in and they didn't mark a man on a THROW IN. The Slovakian sub scored on his first touch of the ball to make it 3-1. Even then Italy threw in a second goal and it seemed like Slovakia was the team on the ropes. Despite the referee chastising the Slovakians for wasting time, they fell to the pitch crying injury with every touch. It really was a shameful display, and if it happened against anyone except Italy, which had stolen a point from New Zealand with a dive of their own, I suppose I would have felt angry. Here it just seemed apropos.

The whistle finally blew, leaving the Italian players showing emotion that had been lacking most of the last three games.

Once Slovakia took a 2-0 lead Paraguay was reasonably safe, but they were playing a dangerous, defensive game. Despite leading the group, Paraguay would have been passed by New Zealand if they had given up a goal, and by Italy if the Italian side won. Even once Slovakia beat Italy, they had a few nervous moments to wait in case New Zealand slipped a ball into the net, which would have elevated them into second place. (This was sort of the revers of the last day of Concacaf qualifying in which Honduras finished their win a few minutes early but still found themselves behind Costa Rica, which was tied with the United States. When American Jonathan Bornstein put in a stoppage time goal, he knotted the game and put Honduras through and Costa Rica in a playoff with Uruguay.) Unfortunately for the Kiwis, their magic ran out and they go home without having lost a game (or winning one).

A lot of attention has been on France and their early exit, but the departure of Italy is a bigger deal. Italy is ranked fifth in the world (to France's ninth) and had a significantly easier draw. (France's opponents were ranked 16 [Uruguay], 17 [Mexico], and 83 [South Africa, playing on home soil]; Italy's opposition was ranked 31 [Paraguay], 34 [Slovakia], and 78 [New Zealand]). In retrospect there might have been signs that Italy was overrated. They fell to Egypt in last year's Confederation's Cup and then got pasted 3-0 by Brazil (allowing a U.S. squad it had beat handily earlier in pool play to advance on goal differentials.) The FIFA rankings are based on results from the last four years (it used to be on the last EIGHT). This would be a little bit like ranking the Philadelphia Eagles as one of the top five teams in the NFL because they have made the Super Bowl with players who were no longer there. Still, much as with the NCAA tournament, the name on the Jersey least to oddsmakers. Today it didn't matter to Slovakia, they certainly appeared to want it more. Italy acted like they deserved it because of who they were, but they didn't. If they had played with anything approaching the intensity and urgency they did in the last ten minutes they would have skated through this region. Turns out, as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

One footnote to this match. Italy looked like they had a second goal when a Slovakian defender on the goal line kicked it away. It was hard to tell if the ball had crossed the goal line first, replays were inconclusive and the refs on the field ruled it no goal. They also had a goal taken away on an offside penalty that looked as close as the U.S./Algeria disallowed goal that had Americans up in arms. It's not that the refereeing has been terrible at this World Cup, it's that the difference between these teams, even the powerhouses and the little fish, is very small, and with not too many goals scored, every decision is critical. Again, I would feel more sympathy for the Italians if they hadn't been the recipients of a dubious penalty kick against New Zealand. That said, the U.S. should can any "why does this only happen to us?" It doesn't.

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