Italy hit rock bottom, Slovakia building momentum

Italy manager Marcello Lippi and his players were
self-critical after a humiliating 3-2 defeat to underdogs Slovakia left the
defending champions at the bottom of Group F and out of the World Cup. 

The web sites of the three Italian sports dailies varied in
the degree of severity in their headlines: “Everyone Home,” said Corriere dello
Sport; “Back Home In Shame,” titled Gazzetta dello Sport; “Lippi, It’s Your
Fault,” screamed the headline on TuttoSport.

Lippi concurred with the latter's assignment of blame.

“I take all the responsibility,” he said. “I believe I had
an important part to play in the results we have earned and now I have my
responsibilities for this elimination. I don’t know why it has happened. For an
hour and 15 minutes we did not succeed in playing soccer, mainly for psychological
reasons. I don’t understand it and so I take the responsibility.”

The loss to Slovakia was the first suffered by Lippi in a
World Cup and marked his final match at the helm of the Azzurri.

“Evidently, I did not prepare the team as I had to,” Lippi
continued. “I would have expected everything but not how the team played in the
first half. It pains me to death to close out this experience in this manner.
I’m not saying I was counting on winning the World Cup again, but not to go out
like this. Best heartfelt wishes to my successor.”

That successor is former Fiorentina head coach Cesare
Prandelli, who faces the task of rebuilding an Italian soccer which is mired in
self-doubt about its real place on the world stage.

“If in three matches, two of which against New Zealand and
Slovakia, you can’t even win one, it’s right to go back home and try to
figure out what happened,” said veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. “Against
Paraguay it was probably our best game, as far as intensity and pushing the
game. It got worse with New Zealand and today, aside from the frantic finish,
we did not ever show that we can be competitive with teams at a higher level.”

Other veterans chimed in on Buffon’s assessment, including
Gennaro Gattuso, who played his last game for the azzurri.

“Italian soccer has to examine its conscience,” Gattuso
said. “Tonight we hit rock bottom.”

“The current state of Italian soccer is this,” Buffon said.
“It’s not the best moment for Italian soccer but we have been suspecting this
for a while. It’s been two years that we’ve been saying there are too many
has-beens but maybe the alternatives are fewer and are just not better.”

While it’s ground zero for Italy, Slovakia are looking to
build on a victory they were never expected to have.

“Qualifying to South Africa was a great achievement in
itself,” said Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik. “No one expected us to be in the
second round, especially when we were playing our chances against Italy.”

“After the birth of my son it is the second best day of my
life,” said Slovakia manager Vladimir Weiss. "Obviously I didn't expect us
to perform as great as we did, but credit must go to the players for the
commitment and fighting spirit they showed today."

Speaking of his son, Weiss kept the right winger on the
bench on Thursday. The head coach had a tense lead-up to the match, clashing
with media ahead of the Group F decider.

“Three days of preparation for Italy were not so easy for me
because in my mind I had questions about the starting 11,” Weiss said. “This is
life, you must be the coach and endure these situations.”

Weiss ultimately made four changes to his starting lineup.
Forward Robert Vittek turned out to be the star with two goals on the night and
Man of the Match honors.

"I wish I could break this trophy for everyone to have
a piece,” Vittek said of his trophy. “I was just at the right place at the
right time [to score]."

Vittek has scored three of his country’s four goals at the
World Cup and will now look to continue his stretch in the Round of 16 on
Monday in Durban.

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