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 …