There are moments in football history when you sense a changing of the guard, and the Euro 2008 quarter final between Italy and Spain was one of them. It was a tedious game, as Italy’s defence nullified the threat of Spain’s nascent tiki-taka. But when the world champions lost 4-2 on penalties, it was the beginning of a dynasty for Spain, and the beginning of the end for Italy.
Italy’s demise was less dramatic than that of France, but equally inevitable. The resignation of Marcello Lippi three days after the 2006 final was an implicit acknowledgement that he had taken this team as far as he could. 13 of the Euro 2008 squad named by Lippi’s successor Roberto Donadoni were over the age of 30.
It would have been more if Donadoni had his way, but Alessandro Nesta refused to come out of retirement and Fabio Cannavaro was ruled out with a ligament injury. Cannavaro had planned to retire after Euro 2008, but the injury changed his mind. He became more determined than ever to lead Italy out at the 2010 World Cup.
It was this decision which became the foundation for Italy’s failure. Cannavaro was no longer an international-class defender. In 2008/09 he was a shadow of his former self, producing two of the worst performances of his Real Madrid career: one in a 4-0 Champions League loss to Liverpool, the other in a 6-2 home defeat to Barcelona.
Yet he kept his place for Italy, largely because Lippi had been re-appointed following Euro 2008. Still living off past glories and unimpressed by the new crop of talent, he stood by many of the 2006 squad despite their waning performance levels. A group stage exit at the 2009 Confederations Cup was a warning sign which went unheeded as Lippi chose a similar squad for the World Cup.
Some of his selection decisions in South Africa provoked raised eyebrows. Vincenzo Iaquinta was given the nod alongside Alberto Gilardino up front despite falling out of favour at Juventus. Antonio Di Natale was the Serie A top scorer in 2009/10 with 29 goals – more than Iaquinta and Gilardino combined – but he was left on the bench.
Francesco Totti, off the back of a 25-goal season for Roma, declared that he would be willing to come out of retirement if selected. Lippi stood by the players who had gotten Italy to the tournament and overlooked Totti, despite the Azzurri badly lacking a creative option in the absence of injured playmaker Andrea Pirlo.
And of course there was Cannavaro. Recently released by Juventus after a poor season back in Serie A, he started for Italy in their opening game against Paraguay nonetheless. Within 40 minutes, it was clear that he was on borrowed time. Antolin Alcaraz towered above the 36-year-old to give the South American side a shock lead.
Daniele De Rossi salvaged a draw but Italy were left licking their wounds, in some cases literally. Gianluigi Buffon had been replaced at half time by Federico Marchetti and would not be fit to face New Zealand. Surprisingly, that was the only change Lippi made for the second game.
It was to be another day to forget for Cannavaro. His missed clearance allowed Shane Smeltz to give the Kiwis a shock lead and he was also beaten too easily by Chris Wood in the latter stages of the game, with Wood’s subsequent shot rolling just wide of Marchetti’s post. Iaquinta’s penalty got Italy level but they were mostly restricted to hopeful efforts from long range.
The draw was a humiliating result for Italy against opponents ranked 78th in the world. Their goalscorer Smeltz was a former Halifax Town and AFC Wimbledon player. Andy Barron, a late substitute, was the only amateur at the tournament, taking time off from his job as a banker to play against the world champions.
"There's no crisis right here, there's no crisis in the team and there's no need for a crisis,” said Lippi after the game, head in the sand. He stood by Cannavaro for the final game against Slovakia, despite a Gazzetta dello Sport poll revealing that 69 per cent of Italians would like to see him dropped.
Di Natale and Gennaro Gattuso were given the chance from the start, but Gattuso was replaced by Fabio Quagliarella at half time with Italy 1-0 down and heading home. Robert Vittek scored his second with 17 minutes left to spark a frenzied finale.
Quagliarella had given Italy renewed attacking vigour and his incisive play allowed Di Natale to half the deficit. But it was a rush of blood from Cannavaro which sealed Italy’s fate. He charged out to meet a throw-in, allowing Kamil Kopunek to ghost into the box and lob the ball over Marchetti with his first touch.
There was time for Quagliarella to loft in a second goal for Italy but it was too little, too late. Italy had finished bottom of a World Cup group for the first time ever. Lippi and Cannavaro, who had both indicated that they would call time on their Italy careers after the tournament, confirmed it within hours.
“Tonight, we hit rock bottom,” said Gattuso, who was also retiring. Most would have agreed with him. But Italy suffered another group stage exit four years later and failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. After each setback, promises were made for a brighter future. Empty promises, as it turns out.
Upon his appointment in 2014, Italian FA president Carlo Tavecchio promised a Germany-esque overhaul of Italy’s footballing identity, with over 200 football centres projected to open nationwide. He resigned from his post after last year’s defeat to Sweden, with fewer than 30 centres opened.
Despite some promising performances at European Championships, the rot which set in nearly a decade ago is still very much apparent. Italy must look to their laurels – and to their youth systems – if they are to regain their place among the global elite.