… In their last 15 minutes of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Italy showed an attacking desire and an aggression that had been missing for nearly the entirety of this tournament. Perhaps from arrogance, perhaps from just being a bit over the hill compared to their competition, Italy looked like a team who felt something less than their best was going to be more than enough to coast into the last 16 against the likes of Paraguay, New Zealand, and Slovakia.
And other years, it probably would have been. But coach Marcello Lippi’s lineups were curious, and he didn’t have all his potential arsenal available with Andrea Pirlo’s injury. But still, with a 100% effort, Italy should have advanced out of Group F blindfolded. But not this year. Not falling behind to every opponent it played and having to rally just to try for a draw (which would have been enough today, as it turned out).
Italy’s departure isn’t in the same class as the French, a fractured farce of a “team” that probably could end up as nomads with their own country embarrassed at the team’s performance. Italy’s fans won’t be happy, but a couple that I know, oddly, don’t even seem to be surprised. Italy’s early exit from this World Cup (their first group stage goodbye since 1974), unlike the French, merely closes out an era. The Italians will take the next four years, develop talent, say arrivederci to some solid veterans, and my guess is they will be ready to return at Brazil 2014 better than ever.
France’s situation, on the other hand, is so bad that as I write this, former Major League Baseball player Robin Ventura is making fun of them during the College World Series.
Italy’s departure, meanwhile, is yet another little piece to a larger puzzle that gives the majority of the teams left every reason to believe there’s at least a semifinal appearance in their near future. Think of it this way … one of the following four teams:
* United States
* South Korea
… is going to the World Cup semifinals. A bonanza for any of these nations, if for nothing else that it gives the team a guaranteed two games no matter how the semifinal turns out. I know Uruguay are World Cup champions from many decades ago, but the semifinals for any of these four teams would be an incredible accomplishment.
Now, consider this. THREE of these four teams WON’T make the semifinals:
… Those four teams collide in Sunday’s Round of 16 doubleheader, with England battling Germany and Argentina having another knockout match with Mexico.
I’m not saying the path is cleared for the United States. But having Italy out is one more potential threat eliminated. This is what Landon Donovan’s late, late, late, holy crap it’s late goal against Algeria yesterday has done for US fans today. It’s OK to dream now. It’s OK to look at this pod of four teams as it were and think, “You know what, we might just be the best damn team of the four.”
This doesn’t mean the US will win Saturday. Things didn’t go so well against Ghana in 2006, and they, as well as South Korea and Uruguay, are definitely not to be taken lightly. But as opposed to 2002, when we knew the US would probably have to beat Mexico and Germany to reach the semifinals (and didn’t miss that outcome by all that much), we look at this 2010 draw and that little part of all of us that wants to look ahead and dare to dream is gaining a louder and louder voice.
And it’s fitting. What we’ve seen from the US, despite their early-game struggles in the first couple games, is almost the exact opposite of Italy. There was no lack of effort, there was little of the diving and embellishing that we saw at times from Italy. And in the Algeria game, there was just hard work. And when that didn’t get it done. There was more hard work. And when the assistant referee took away our goal, there was more hard work.
And in the end, when it almost seemed lost … yeah, there was even more hard work. And it finally paid off. Against top-class teams, who knows what will happen. But against Ghana, South Korea, and/or Uruguay, hard work is going to go a long way.
It’s a lesson Italy painfully learned after their World Cup clock had already struck midnight.
(Yes, I know the Netherlands, Brazil, or Portugal would likely be waiting in the semifinals, but let’s get there, first. )
* The Netherlands beat Cameroon, 2-1, to win Group E, while Japan dented Denmark, 3-1, to also advance. The Netherlands plays Slovakia in the US half of the bracket, while Japan battles Paraguay on the other side.
* New Zealand’s wonderful World Cup ended with a third consecutive draw, this time 0-0 to Paraguay. One goal would have sent them through, but there’s no shame in their performance at all. It wasn’t pretty football, but they were doing what they had to, as best they could, and it was almost good enough. Congrats to them. Paraguay win Group F, Italy finish dead last.
The final day of group play is tomorrow! Predictions below. Join in on the conversation in the Comments section below.
Brazil 2-1 Portugal
Ivory Coast 3-0 North Korea
Honduras 1-1 Switzerland
Spain 3-2 Chile
Today’s Record: 1-3.
Tournament Record: 22-22.