A blame of two halves

Italians are blaming everything from lack of Parmesan cheese to bans on sex for their poor showing at the World Cup. Dominic Standish reports from Italy.

Dominic Standish

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The Italians, widely tipped to win the World Cup, were knocked out in the final 16 by South Korea on 18 June 2002.

So why did the Azzurri, ‘the blues’, play so poorly in the tournament? As anyone who lives in Italy knows, Italians are obsessed with diet and sex (in that order) – and it was in the second round of the World Cup that diet- and sex-related problems arose.

In the second round, played in South Korea, the Italian team had to go without Parmesan cheese on their pasta. Unthinkable though this is for Italians, the South Korean authorities had imposed a ban on non-pasteurised dairy products (1). Italian players typically respond to a mistake during a match by asking a player, ‘What have you eaten today?’ (in other words, diet = performance).

Also, the Italians must surely have ignored recommendations to consume wine, olive oil and pasta. According to the Italian nutritionist Publio Viola, Italian strikers ‘need short bursts of energy provided by complex carbohydrates such as pasta and wine’ (2).

Bruno Pizzul, a former Italian player, is a strong believer in players drinking wine. ‘I remember one time with AC Milan’s coach Giacomelli’, he recalled, ‘when he realised that his player Antonelli was slow to react on the field, and ascribed it to lack of wine: he allowed him to drink, and he started playing like a champion’ (2).

Alongside the food problems, Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni banned his players from having sex before their matches in the first round (3).

Most Italians are blaming the referees and linesmen for the Italian team’s failures – taking their lead from manager Trappatoni. ‘I don’t understand why we had a player sent off and a goal disallowed’, said Trappatoni, after losing to South Korea. ‘[It] is not the first time it has happened for us in the competition.’

Indeed, the Italian team had five goals disallowed during the tournament – all of which seem to have been scored without breaking any rules. The Italian daily La Repubblica described the referee in the South Korea match as ‘disgraceful’. In Rome, 2000 fans gathered in Piazza del Popolo, chanting ‘death to the referee’.

Now it is understandable to claim a conspiracy by refs and linesmen for matches played in Italy. There has been a long and difficult campaign against football bribery here, and the top five teams often seem to benefit from dubious decisions.

But even the apparent bad luck of decisions against Italy cannot explain their World Cup troubles. Turkey suffered from an incorrect penalty decision against them when they played the mighty Brazil in the first round – yet now Turkey are in the final eight.

There may be more truth in the endless discussions on Italian TV about the absence of leadership in the Italian team. Great World Cup-winning teams usually have great leading players – like Diego Maradona for Argentina (winners 1986) and Zinedine Zidane for France (winners 1998).

The Italian veteran Paolo Maldini was reliable in defence, but he was not an inspirational leader. Christian Vieri scored four goals, but apparently led for himself and not the rest of the team. Francesco Totti was evidently the most creative player, but he must find it difficult to lead when he has problems even stringing a sentence together.

Many Italian commentators bemoaned the antics of manager Trappatoni. During the loss to South Korea, he was filmed on the touchline kicking water bottles at people and punching a plastic window where officials were sheltering. Trappatoni acted like a prima donna, not a leader.

The harsh truth for Italy is that even without a leader, they were poor. They only beat Ecuador and struggled to draw against Mexico, who were knocked out by the USA. They lost to Croatia and South Korea, and neither of these sides is even considered a second-rate world team.

The demise of international Italian football mirrors the decline of domestic Italian football. The Italian capitalists that have bankrolled football clubs are no longer able to keep up. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has weakened his links with AC Milan. The ailing Gianni Agnelli, honorary chairman of the increasingly unhealthy Fiat, is struggling to prop up Juventus. In recent years, clubs like SS Lazio, AS Roma and Juventus have sought finance through listings on the stock exchange – while famous clubs like Fiorentina and Napoli are on the verge of bankruptcy.

No Italian team has qualified for the semi-finals of the European Champions’ League for two years. Star players have left Italy, including Zidane, who has moved to a Spanish team. The resulting lack of competition within the Italian championship has inevitably weakened the national side. The centre of European football seems to have shifted from Italy to Spain, which has attracted the world’s best players, including Luis Figo and Rivaldo.

So maybe the Spanish, who have won every one of their World Cup games so far, will finally prove themselves in an international competition.

I am sorry to see the Italians knocked out. I will miss their occasional skill and flair, and my banter with the locals. At this stage in World Cup tournaments, I usually switch my allegiance from a defeated England to a victorious Italy. This year, I’m happy that it’s my Italian wife’s turn to ditch her national team to support mine. Let’s hope it will be for more than a few days.

Dominic Standish is a columnist for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consulting in the Veneto region of Italy (dstandish@europe.com).

(1) ‘Soccer faces cheese law’, Stacy Meichtry, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 24 January 2002

(2) ‘Wine and olive oil: the Azzurri’s magical elixirs’, Adapted from Verde Oggi, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 11 June 2002

(3) Italian World Cup players ‘get first round sex ban’, Ananova, 15 May 2002

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