It wasn’t supposed to be this way – a do-or-die encounter by the North Sea. It had been largely assumed that Italy and the Czech Republic would already have qualified by the team they met in Hamburg – or at least be very close to doing so.
That scenario was reinforced in no uncertain terms after the first round of matches. The Czechs bulldozed past the Americans with an emphatic 3-0 win and the Azzuri had a few scares in their 2-0 victory over Ghana but finished the game in control.
It all went wrong in the second round of games in Group E. Despite having a man advantage for most of a brutal 90 minutes against the Americans, Italy could only come away from Kaiserslautern with a 1-1 draw. To make matters worse, Ghana outplayed the highly-fancied Czechs with an impressive 2-0 win in Koln.
The stage was then set. All four teams had a Bandarqq chance to reach the second round, though American hopes were by far the slimmest. A Ghana win would mean that the Africans would book their place in the last sixteen meaning that going into the game, the Czechs had to take three points to be sure while a draw for the Italians would be enough.
Confused? The Italian journalists in the media centre before the game weren’t – they were nervous.
“The other game will not be a draw,” said one of what seemed to be an entire legion of ‘La Republica’ reporters. “If we lose, we are out.”
“I don’t know what to say, I’m really nervous.” said another. “I don’t think the Czechs have a good defence and they are not a great team but I think the Italians have a mental problem these days.”
There were few problems, mental or otherwise, in the first half for Marcello Lippi’s team. Even the loss of Alessandro Nesta in the 17th minute didn’t work out too badly as replacement Marco Materazzi headed home soon after.
Pavel Nedved was everywhere in the opening period and was his team’s best player – a busy mass of blond hair trying to ensure that the day would not be his last World Cup day. The Juve midfielder tested Gianluigi Buffon a couple of times in each half but his club-mate was always up to the challenge.
Even before the sending off of Jan Polak in first-half injury time, the Czechs weren’t getting forward in enough numbers to trouble an Italian defence marshalled by the fabulous Fabio Cannavaro.
The Juventus defender is certainly well-liked at home, as the official Italian FA ‘Introduction to the Italian Team’ booklet handed out to reporters testifies:
“The street urchin can do things others can’t imagine. Robbed like the others in that crazy final in Rotterdam, a samurai in Japan (chased by almond-eyed girls) and sadder than an Amalia Rodriguez fado in the Portugal of Cassano’s tears. Now comes Germany. The wall is no longer there. The dream is to sing oi’ vita mia along the Unter den Linden, the captain and the others.”
The Czechs won’t be doing so. Needing to win against an Italian team that was not only desperate to avoid defeat but had a man and a goal advantage would be a huge ask for any team and they never looked like doing it.
It seemed that passions had cooled along with the weather and the second half was a fairly subdued affair, it was more interesting, though a little strange to watch the Ghana – USA game on the television on my desk.
The Czech fans tried their best to support their faltering team but in the end it was all in vain.