Three teams, England, Italy and France, consistently failed to perform. The three countries, all of which have won the World Cup — the Italians no fewer than four times — never remotely came near to it in South Africa.
England did at least reach the first knock out round of the World Cup, but then promptly disintegrated. France and Italy didn't even get so far. Three managers under the harshest of spotlights. Three teams which consistently failed to perform. Three countries, all of which have won the World Cup — the Italians no fewer than four times — who never remotely came near to it in South Africa.
How much was each of the managers to blame? England's Fabio Capello came under withering fire after the Germans time after time strolled through his defence almost at will. All very well to emphasise the part played by that appalling decision by the Ukrainian referee and his linesman, when Frank Lampard's in-off-the-cross bar goal was ludicrously and shamefully disallowed. All very well for the excuse to be made that failing to reach 2-2 parity forced the England team to take greater tactical risks than they would otherwise have done. The stark fact was that their central defence was an open space long before their first goal went in, the Germans having been quite capable with the chances they so easily made of being four up rather than two up.
How far was Capello culpable? Though I have known, liked and even admired him for over 35 years I was never convinced by his England policies. Constantly and wastefully giving the faded David Beckham those cameo roles was senseless and what was he doing as an adjunct to the England team in South Africa? At no point did Fabio resolve the problem of the duopoly of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in midfield. Right up to the last doomed match against Germany, Gerrard was stuck out on the left wing — when he stayed there — on his wrong foot, rather than lining up just behind Wayne Rooney.
Ah, Rooney! What could Capello or anyone else have done about his dismal form, the very antithesis was what was so confidently expected of him? He should have been the best instead he was one of the worst, flaccid, ineffectual, mediocre, at most. Why? Who can say, but his drab form was a kind of betrayal.
Nor could you blame Capello for the fact that England lost the best and quickest of their centre backs, Rio Ferdinand, to injury on the eve of the tournament. But the idea of bringing on the infamously no-scoring Emile Heskey as a late substitute just as England desperately needed goals seemed senseless. In the event, the FA found themselves over a barrel since shortly before the tournament, afraid Capello might defect to Inter, they deleted the clause whereby both parties could dissolve his contract within the two weeks directly after the World Cup. Meaning that if he decided to stay, which he said he did, to get rid of him would demand 2 million pounds in compensation.
Marcello Lippi and Raymond Domenech of Italy and France respectively have, however, already gone. Lippi in a welter of self incrimination — all his fault! — and Domenech after appalling ructions among his squad, all of it making you wonder why on earth the French football hierarchy had kept him on as a manager after abject failure in the finals of the European Championship of 2008. The horrific climax, you might think, came at half time in the French dressing room, when they were struggling against Mexico. Domenech suggested to Anelka that he should play wide rather than in the middle, which was greeted with a burst of obscene language. In the event, though Domenech was prepared to give Anelka a second chance — one which would hardly be taken — the hierarchy packed Anelka back home.
Franck Ribery, a parody of the player who made such an impact in the 2006 tournament in Germany, was an abrasive and disruptive figure who, for some reason, had his knife into the young Bordeaux midfielder, Yoann Gourcuff. Thierry Henry, author of the outrageous double handball which gave France a vital goal in Paris against Ireland and virtually secured their passage to South Africa, thought he would be sure of a starting place in the side but didn't get it. The French government right the way up to the President Sarkozy made it their business to interfere in the chaos, Sarkozy actually receiving Henry on an official visit. Not a moment too soon the President of the French Federation, largely responsible for the Domenech fiasco, resigned. Chaos.
After Italy had been humiliatingly put out of their misery by modest Slovakia, thoroughly indulged by a sloppy Italian defence — though hardly as inept as England's against Germany — the Azzurri manager, Marcello Lippi did public penance. It was all his fault, he said. Well, up to a point … he had a point. His insistence on deploying a clearly spent force such as the 36 -year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro at centre path was always going to be dicing with death. Two bad fouls in the same game should have earned Cannavaro a red card, but a generous English referee allowed him to stay on the field.
In the game against Slovakia, the way he wandered out of the centre towards the left, on the occasion of Slovakia's second goal, gave the opposition the space they wanted. Though just as it was hardly Capello's fault that Rio Ferdinand was out injured, so Lippi, whatever confession he might have made, could hardly be blamed for the fact that Gigi Buffon, such an experienced and commanding goalkeeper, should be forced to drop out after the first game, giving way to the relatively inexperienced — at international level — Federico Marchetti, who showed none of the same command. Injury to Milan's Pirlo also deprived the team of its one accomplished playmaker, unable to take the field till the 56th minute of the Slovakian game, when he immediately proceeded to make a difference.
Yet it was a mistake of Lippi not to bring the much travelled striker Fabio Quagliarella on until as late as the second half of the Slovakian game, when he had one attempt saved on the line, another beautifully dinked over the keeper's head, to give Italy a goal.
Moreover, Lippi may now be regretting that he lacked the initiative to risk picking two gifted if undisciplined mavericks, Antonio Cassano, who came out of the slums of Bari and now plays with Sampdoria, and the precocious, powerful, in every way explosive, Mario Balotelli of Inter. An attacker of Ghanaian parents, born and brought up in Palermo. Each of them takes some delicate and patient handling, but each could well have sprung the surprises which Italy failed to spring in their three ill- starred games.
More stories from this issue
- Al Ain vs Al Nassr Highlights, AFC Champions League Quarterfinal: Rahimi goal gives host 1-0 advantage in first leg
- AFC Champions League quarterfinal: Ronaldo’s Al Nassr suffers narrow loss against Al Ain in first-leg
- ISL 2023-24: NorthEast United FC’s playoffs challenge takes a hit with a 2-2 draw against Hyderabad FC
- WPL 2024: Royal Challengers Bangalore beats UP Warriorz, finishes home leg on a high
- Indian shuttler B Sai Praneeth retires from international badminton