Italy's short run marked by questionable officiating

Italy's short run at the World Cup marked by questionable officiating and unfulfilled expectations.

updated: February 25, 2007 09:27 IST
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Daejeon, South Korea:

Italy will never forgive the refs. Three-time champion Italy was knocked out of the World Cup on Tuesday by underdog hosts South Korea in the round of 16 - the Italians' worst performance since 1986. The ouster at the hands of a team that had never won a match at the championship before this year was a deep humiliation to a squad long rated among the world's best. But whatever the weaknesses of the Italian squad at this tournament, whatever the strengths of their opponents, Italy will never wipe out the memory of a series of questionable refereeing decisions. On Tuesday, an early penalty, a red card and a disallowed goal were among the decisions called against Italy. In their previous two matches, they had four more goals disallowed, with some apparently valid on video replay. "The World Cup started like this for us and kept on in the same direction,'' Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni said after Tuesday's match. "We go out with our heads held high, but with a lot of recriminations,'' he said. "If we talk about who should have won, I'd say it should be Italy". In Italy, the public railed against the refereeing. In South Korea, the Italian players felt that their one chance in four years on the most international of stages had been decided not by their merits but by the failings of officials. "There have been many mistakes, too many,'' striker Alessandro Del Piero said. "It hurts a lot". And all had started out so well. The Italians played the first round in Japan in Group G, facing Ecuador, Croatia and Mexico - not exactly an easy group, but one Italy was expected to win. Certainly, looking at their roster, they had enough outstanding players to draw short odds from any decent bookie. Italy's opening match seemed to confirm all expectations, with the team handily beating first-time World Cup entrants Ecuador 2-0. Beefy striker Christian Vieri banged in both goals; key playmaker Francesco Totti played with the touch of a Brazilian. However, skeptics pointed out that Italy hadn't been challenged yet. In the second match they were challenged, both by a wily Croatian squad and by the officiating. Italy lost 2-1, but did so after two goals were disallowed - the first an offside call that appeared on replay to have been incorrect; the second another debatable call based on less-than-extreme pushing in the penalty area. The Italians were outraged over those calls, concentrating in the following days on their feelings of injustice and reluctant to acknowledge their weaknesses in the match. Next, Italy played a Mexican squad they were expected to beat only to find themselves a goal down early in the match. The Italians battled desperately to catch up and succeeded on a header from striker Alessandro Del Piero in the fading minutes. But in the match they again had two goals questionably disallowed. Again, they spoke little after that match of the problems they'd faced at the hands of their opponents, and much of the officiating. The team made it out of the group stage in second place after Mexico, and headed for a round-of-16 contest with South Korea. For the fourth time in a row, they entered a match they were expected to win. For the third time in a row they did not. The Koreans put them in trouble with their non-stop swarming of every Italian player. But Italy again suffered decisions from a referee who seemed all too ready to fling out yellow cards for minor infractions. During golden-goal extra time, referee Byron Moreno of Ecuador even appeared to have forgotten that he'd already shown a yellow to Totti earlier in the match, and that by flashing it again he was in fact sending the crucial player off. But wiping aside the ref issue, Italy had problems. They never settled on an attacking line, with coach Trapattoni using three different formations up front over their four matches: first Vieri and Totti; then adding nifty striker Filippo Inzaghi; then removing Inzaghi and putting in Del Piero for the last match. The legendary defence was at times a delight to watch, coolly clearing and cleanly tackling. But it too had moments of shakiness. This was aggravated in the South Korea match, with center-back Alessandro Nesta out with a foot injury, while his partner Fabio Cannavaro was excluded having received two yellow cards in previous matches. As for the midfield, experienced Luigi Di Biagio suffered an injury during training after the Croatia match and was out for the rest of the tournament. And as a unit, the Italian midfield often dangerously ceded territory. Italy is now left with what is likely to be a long debate over whether the team was knocked out because of its weaknesses or if the refereeing alone was to blame. (AP)