David Hirshey will write regularly during the World Cup.
Did anyone really think it was going to be easy, a walk in the Piazza perhaps, while a bunch of Foster-swilling Aussies serenaded them with Waltzing Matilda?
Forget for a moment that, going in, Italy was unbeaten in 21 games and already had three World Cups in its trophy cabinet while Australia was playing in the tournament for the first time since 1974 and was better known for its success in cricket, rugby and beers-consumed-before-noon than soccer. Never mind that the chasm in terms of talent between the Serie A-stacked Italians and Australia — with a starting defender from a Third Division English club — is as wide and deep as the ever-burgeoning match-fixing scandal that threatens to implicate every Italian with the possible exception of Roberto Benigni (not to be confused with the divinely ponytailed Roberto Baggio whose vertical penalty kick in the '94 World Cup final was last seen orbiting Pasadena)
This is Italy we're talking about, and when was the last time that the Azzuri didn't try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Against an overmatched US team that was playing two men down for the second half, the Italians, unable to sustain any semblance of an attack in the face of the Americans' Rollerball tactics, contrived to look like they were the team playing shorthanded. Yesterday, the Italians created high drama once again, starting with Lippi's brave move to leave out the team's talismanic playmaker Francesco Totti. The Roma captain, still struggling with his fitness after sitting out three months with a broken leg, has been a shadow of his former self in the first three games, and even his loyal flare-throwing fans seemed to give up on their hero after he disappeared against the Czechs.
In lieu of Totti, Lippi decided to go with three forwards in the hope that Italy would lay siege to the Aussie goal and advance with minimum fuss. But instead it was the Aussies, combative and unrelenting, who threw everything but Russell Crowe's phone at Italy's vaunted defense, which was again missing world-class center-back Allessandro Nesta. In his place was Marco Materazzi, a big, powerful defender whose ability in the air is rivaled only by his propensity to lose his head at critical stages of a match.
Though the early parts of the game were notable for how S-L-O-O-O-O-O-W the pace was, and for Italy's usually deadly marksmen Luca Toni making a hash of several gilt—edged chances, you kept waiting for the inevitable crisis to befall the Azzurri. What would it be this time? A reprise of South Korea, when Italy seemed through to the semifinals only to be cruelly hauled back at the door by cynical referees? Or would it be the other bane of their existence, a penalty kick shootout where their knees turn to gelato (Baggio's botched kick being only the most painful of three World cup exits via that route)?
So it was no surprise to veteran Italy disaster-watchers to see the referee wave a card in Materazzi's face in the 50th minute after the defender scythed down Bresciano just outside the box. Even though you could make the case, as the Italians did, that the color of the card should have been yellow, after watching the "officiating" in the Portugal-Holland game, Materazzi should consider himself lucky not to have been arrested and deported from the country. Down to 10 men, the Italians were forced to slow down the game even more, and Viduka and Cahill caused some nervous moments for Italy's keeper Buffon by hurling themselves into the penalty box scrum (sorry, wrong sport) with little fear for their more delicate appendages. With 15 minutes remaining and the dread of overtime, penalty kicks and being hung in effigy looming, Lippi threw on Totti and prayed for a miracle. Totti, who unlike his teammates, goes light on the hair gel and heavy on the saliva flung in opponents' direction, was largely anonymous until the final ticks of the clock. But there was no place for him to hide when Lucas Neill took leave of his senses and clattered into Grosso as the Italian dribbled into the box. The ref pointed to the penalty spot and without a moment's hesitation, up stepped Totti to slam the ball into the net .
In a World Cup already renowned for its Redemption-A-Day storylines, Totti's goal was no less reputation-saving than Beckham's. So the Italians move on to face what amounts to a tomato can of an opponent in Ukraine. The question is: Will they finally whip up a goal-scoring feast worthy of their talent, or will they find a way to choke yet again?
Also, is it just me, or doesn't ESPN commentator Giorgio Chinaglia look like he belongs on the podium at this year's James Gandolfini Lookalike Contest?