world cup

Arrivederci, Italia!

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, saying good-bye to the defending champs.

Two days, two former World Cup champions down. And not just any champions: The two that met in the final of the last World Cup, just four years ago. First, it was France bidding adieu to South Africa in an implosion for the ages. And then, one day later, down goes Italy.

As far as I’m concerned, karma strikes again. The French dared tangle with the Luck o’ the Irish, cheating their way into a spot that was actually deserved by Ireland. And the Italians? I think their lesson is clear: Don’t fuck with Oceania. Four years ago, Italy edged by Australia in the knockout round by drawing a penalty kick with a dive. This year, it was the Kiwis who fell victim to the Italian scumbaggery — a dive led to a penalty kick that led to a tie that ultimately cost New Zealand a spot in the second round. The only good news this time is that Italy will join them.

Really, Italians can blame the team’s coach, Marcello Lippi, who chose to build a team of creaky-kneed graybeards instead of infusing the team with new, young talent. As if to hammer that point home, he dropped one of the few young stars he had considered, Giuseppi Rossi (or Young Benedict Arnold, as I like to call him; Rossi was born and raised in New Jersey but chose to play for Italy, birthplace of his parents). And after the match Lippi ate crow. “I take full responsibility,” he said, just after sprinting off the field without shaking hands with Slovakia’s coach. Now that’s class.

If you’ve been paying attention the Italian side, this wasn’t a huge shock. The team hasn’t won since last November and in its last seven games, has five draws and two losses. They played ugly soccer, and that’s being kind.

The only surprising thing about the final indignity against Slovakia — a team that played like it expected to win — was that, in the final minutes, the Italians actually showed some heart. And, for the first time in the tournament, they attacked the goal and created chances without just booting the ball up top and hoping for the best. They almost tied it up.

Oh, well, fellas. Too little, too late.

Dismount your bicycles, sirs. You are no match for the Japanese snipers. Before yesterday, I had seen exactly one free kick in this entire tournament actually go into the net, and fewer than a handful that required the keeper to do anything but track the kicked ball as it blasted into orbit. That was until yesterday, when Japan played Denmark. For the first time since the seventies (I heard this precise stat somewhere but have since forgotten it), a team scored twice on free kicks in one game. That team was Japan. Of course, if any nation was going to hack the Jabulani, it was Japan.

Keisuke Honda got things started with a sweet left-footer that curled around the wall and into the net and then, just to show off, the team scored one on a right-footer. This time it was Yasuhito Endo who curled a perfect ball around the wall in the other direction, and it was so clean and bend-y that you could not computer generate a more precise shot.

Down 2–0 on two set pieces — but looking great with their fine cheekbones and spiky hair — the Danes really never mounted much of a challenge, and I found myself watching this game completely equivocal in my allegiance. Could there be two more likable teams than Denmark and Japan***? I would question your sanity if you had truly hard feelings for either.

Nonetheless, Japan goes through, along with the Netherlands, which won again and just keeps rolling along, motivated in part by their desire to live up to my prediction that they would win the World Cup. The Dutch learned long ago not to cross Josh Dean.

And the Danes, the Danes will now hop on their 11-man bicycle and pedal home to their clean and friendly land of towering women and architectural flatware. Someone told me once that the Danes produce the nastiest porn on earth. And because I sometimes perpetuate “truths” that are utterly unsubstantiated, I have since shared this “fact” with many people. I shudder to think how one would carry out a thorough study of this, or how one quantifies “nasty,” but if it’s true, if it’s true, that’s something else for these guys to look forward to.

***People over 70 are ineligible to answer this question.

This is coaching I can get behind. The secret to England’s victory over Slovenia, a win that prevented a legion of pasty, bald men from drowning themselves in a red phone booth full of rancid takeout curry? Manager Fabio Capello ended his ban on alcohol and allowed his players (even John Terry!) to drink beer the night before the match. “It’s true,” Capello said. “I changed something and used my imagination.” Bravo, sir.

Today’s orders: You will want to take a meeting at 10 a.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. At least on paper, it’s hard to imagine two better first-round matches than Portugal-Brazil and Spain-Chile. The former pits a country against its former colonial overlord — actually, as commenter Yssys points out, Spain-Chile does as well — not to mention a lot of hair gel and men who go by a single name. (Let’s go, Danny!) It will also feature some of the more gee-whiz-y individual play you’re likely to see in the tournament. The latter pits the pre-tournament favorite against the team that has surprised me the most. You have Spain, a masterful team that passes the ball so precisely, and for such periods, that they seem to have fifteen men on the field. And you have Chile, which plays an up-tempo run-and-gun game reminiscent of the Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns. Well, except for the scoring part. They’re like Amare Stoudamire and Steve Nash until they reach the rim, at which time they seem to finish like Kurt Rambis without his Rec-Specs.

Arrivederci, Italia!