Italy as victim

THE hysterical reaction by Italian players, Press and fans to the team's elimination by South Korea evokes the Italian word vittimismo. A dictionary gives the meaning as persecution complex but it might be closer the mark to call it a sense of being cast as victim. Perhaps inevitably, the Ecuadorian referee Senor Moreno has been cast as persecutor in chief. Did he not give that early penalty against the azzurri? Was he not known in South America as "Yellow Card"? Was he not, at 32, seriously overweight? Did he not rule out what seemed a good goal by Tommasi? Did he not, worst of all, expel Francesco Totti on a second yellow card for what he deemed a dive, though there seemed good evidence that the Roma captain had been fouled? To rub salt into those gaping wounds, had he not at the final whistle refused the outstretched hands of four Italian players?

Hysterical reactions indeed, not least on the part of the head of the Italian delegation, himself, Raffele Ranucci, who speaks of bad faith and evokes memories of the so called Toto Nero scandal of the early 1980s when dozens of leading Italian players were found guilty of fixing games. Inevitably the bitter memories of another Korean defeat, that of 1966 in Middlesbrough by the North Koreans, were evoked. Italy, reduced to 10 men when Giacomo Bulgarelli, the midfielder, hurt himself trying to foul an opponent, lost to a goal by the Korean inside-left, Pak Doo Ik.

Perhaps it was predictable that the corpulent, ever-explosive and controversial President of the Perugia club, for whom the Korean scorer of the winning goal Ahn Jung-Hwan has been playing, Luciano Gaucci, should add his strident voice. Gaucci, endlessly involved in noisy controversy, even accused of giving a horse to a referee, declared that Ahn would never play again for Perugia, for whom in fact he had been no more last season than an occasional if lively substitute. How dare Ahn bite the hand that had fed him so generously with so little response! An attitude somewhat vitiated by the report that Gaucci has at least four strikers available next season for Perugia, among them the Greek international Vrizas, and that he is likely simply to transfer Ahn on loan to a Serie B club which he also owns, in the shape of Sicily's Catania.

Leaving the field, infuriated and embittered, the azzurri behaved like a bunch of spoiled children, smashing up their dressing room: having previously surrounded and abused Moreno. Totti, who said that when Moreno sent him off he had a mad look in his eyes, was among the principal destroyers. "You cannot believe what I have done, I've smashed up so many things," admitted Totti, who insisted that Moreno was 40 yards away when he decided to expel him. Wardrobes, mirrors, benches were devastated in the azurri's wrath. Though so far as one knows the England players after being cheated by Diego Maradona's Hand of God goal at the Azteca Stadium in the 1986 World Cup, left their dressing room intact.

Yet here and there among Italian journalists, the still, small voice of calm has been heard. A more detached, objective view has maintained that the azzurri were the authors of their own destruction, as indeed they surely were when they previously lost to unfancied Croatia, a mere parody of the Alen Boksic-Davor Suker team which had shocked them in Palermo in the qualifiers for Euro 1996. True, the Italians had what looked a couple of good goals ruled out against Croatia this time, but it was their own abysmal defensive mistakes which enabled the Croatians to score twice.

Gianni Mura put it neatly in La Repubblica, the Italians had been like a man who drives through a notoriously dangerous zone wearing a Rolex watch with his arm dangling out of the car window. Thus the refereeing of Moreno becomes "a great sheet" concealing all sorts of errors, large and small.

Above all, surely, that bred in the bone caution and negativity which has charecterised Italian football for years and which had its most notorious expression in the tactic of catenaccio, defence based on the principle of a sweeper who operated exclusively behind the lines, seldom if ever tempted to break forward as Franz Beckenbauer would when he reinvented the role first with Bayern Munich then with West Germany. Counter attack was what counted.

Giovanni Trapattoni, Italy's manager, was brought up in that environment, both as an international left half with Milan and as a hugely successful coach with Juventus and Inter. Some Italian critics believe the situation was exacerbated by the weary condition of the Italian team, exhausted by the rigours of their Championship.

When Enzo Bearzot managed the team, one of his salient preoccupations was in his own words to "disintoxicate" his players, poisoned by the psychological as by the physical demands of the Campionato. So doing, he won the World Cup in Spain in 1982.

Trapattoni has been given the habitual vote of confidence, as indeed was Cesare Maldini; destined soon to be replaced after the 1998 World Cup in which Italy didn't lose a game. "Trap" has been criticised for his decisions in the Korean debacle, notably for bringing on the limited midfielder Gattuso as a substitute rather than big Marco Delvecchio, the Roma attacker, who could have played wide on the left, enabling Totti to partner Vieri up front or operate just behind him. Gattuso it is true almost scored, but these critics maintain that it was an easy left-footed opportunity, which he had spurned by shooting with his right. And indeed it was the weaker right foot of a tired Christian Vieri which had thrown away a still easier opportunity. Nor can the Italian defence be exonerated for the two goals which they gave away against South Korea. Panucci's error on the first, failure to pick up Ahn on the second; by when Paolo Maldini, so commanding at centre back for so much of the game, looked spent.

Meanwhile, it ill becomes Ranucci to question the integrity of Moreno, for which he has thus far produced no shred of evidence. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, as a prolonged Sunday Times investigation exposed, it was major Italian clubs - Inter, Juventus, Milan - which were involved in the suborning of European referees, the notorious protagonist being the late Italo Allodi, secretary at Inter, general manager at Juventus. Our investigation accused him of corrupting Herr Dienst, the Swiss referee of the European Nations Cup Final between Italy and Yugoslavia in Rome in 1968, when a plain foul in the box by Ferrini went unpunished, Italy equalised and went on to win the subsequent replay.

When Allodi was inexplicably made general manager of Italy's 1974 World Cup team in Germany, a previous Italian coach, successful club manager and former elegant international centre-half Fulvio Bernardini, wondered why. "All he's ever done is give gold watches to referees," he said. Bearzot was always convinced that Allodi was behind an unsuccessful attempt to bribe the Poles who eliminated Italy from the tournament in Stuttgart and made accusations which they eventually withdrew.

Vittimismo, the demonising of Senor Moreno, should not blind the Italians to the deep deficiencies which lie behind a wretched World Cup performance. They should have played South Korea off the park, just as they should have annihilated the Croatians. Instead, they are bitterly back home.