Italy in mourning after demise of Azzurri

Image caption, Many Italy fans watched the match on huge public screens

Italy have been dumped out of the football World Cup, losing 3-2 to Slovakia in one of the surprise results of the tournament. Mark Duff reports from a football-obsessed nation in mourning.

On a balmy summer evening in July 2006, Italians from Naples to Milan gathered round television screens in bars and piazzas, hardly believing their eyes as the young defender Fabio Grosso ran wild-eyed across the pitch after slotting home the final goal in the penalty shoot-out that saw Italy beat France in the World Cup final.

Four years later, they stared dumbfounded as their heroes failed to perform until it was far too late in what was their last match at this year's World Cup finals in South Africa. In Rome, a TV news reporter choked back the tears as she described the scene at one of the maxiscreens set up for fans to watch the match. "There should have been a party here tonight," she said, "there's not."

Image caption, Italy's fans may not be forgiving when their fallen heroes fly home

In Naples, the fans held their hands in supplication or hid their faces behind their tricolori flags as time and again the Italian team failed to spark. Afterwards, they were less forgiving. The team's performance was "shameful", "disgraceful", "scandalous", they said.

Italians know their football like they know their food. The analysis was free-flowing - and none of it flattering to the team or, especially, the coach, Marcello Lippi. "Humiliated by Slovakia" judged Italy's biggest-selling sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport.

The triumph of 2006 was an unlikely one; this year's failure perhaps more predictable - this, in a season which saw an Italian club, Inter, win the Champions League, but with a starting line-up for the final that didn't feature a single Italian player.

Victory in Germany came against the backdrop of unprecedented revelations of match-fixing at the highest levels of Italian football, revelations that saw Italy's biggest club, Juventus, stripped of the league title and relegated in disgrace.

The hero of the hour, then, was Genaro Gattuso, the bearded, no-frills midfielder who ran and tackled his heart out for the Azzurri, and who personified the "grinta" - the grit - that drove Lippi's unfancied squad to victory on that night in Berlin.

Image caption, Italians do disappointment well, with a touch of Latin charm

This time, Gattuso was substituted at half-time. He'd given his all - he always does - but it simply wasn't enough. He came to symbolise the 2010 team's failings as much as he had their strengths four years ago. As one piazza pundit put it, brutally: "You're never going to win the World Cup with a team of geriatrics." Another said: "The defence didn't exist."

Put the two comments together and you have a damning assessment of the performance of the hero of 2006 - the Italian captain and one-time defensive colossus, Fabio Cannavaro. He's just a "chiodo" said a disappointed fan: as quick as a nail banged into the ground.

It's not as if Italians couldn't do with a bit of good news. As the pictures of defeat looped incessantly across the 24-hour news channels, the "breaking news" straplines told of rising unemployment and new political scandals, even if the country's employer's federation did say it thought that the country had at long last emerged from recession.

Italians, though, do disappointment well, with a touch of Latin charm. They don't turn nasty, like the English used to when they lost. The hurt is real. But there's a fatalism behind the anger - especially in the south. Such is life, they seem to say with a shrug of the shoulders. As a young priest put it - watching in despair with a group of children on a church-run summer camp: "We won it in 2006; it's someone else's turn this year."

Phlegmatic they may be, but Italy's football fans may not be forgiving when their fallen heroes fly home sometime on Friday. When Italy were knocked out of the 1966 World Cup finals by the little-fancied North Koreans, the Italian players were pelted with rotten tomatoes on their return. North Korea became a byword for the disgrace of Italian football. Slovakia may just be about to take its place.

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