Where it went wrong for Italy
Italy didn't only lose a game of football to Uruguay on Tuesday. They also lost their place at the World Cup, the president of their football federation, Giancarlo Abete, their coach, Cesare Prandelli (both of whom resigned), and their best player, Andrea Pirlo, who retired from international football. Those are heavy casualties.
"In the north-east of Brazil, Caporetto is called Natal," wrote Massimiliano Nerozzi in La Stampa, invoking the memory of the World War I battle in which the Italians were routed.
On the one hand, Italy can feel aggrieved. Reduced to 10 men with half an hour to play, Claudio Marchisio's sending-off for a challenge on Arevalo Rios was harsh. A yellow card would have sufficed. But once again, Italy found themselves faced with a referee called Moreno. And as was the case with his namesake Byron in 2002, whose questionable decisions contributed to the Azzurri's elimination against South Korea, Marco Rodriguez made some of his own, too.
"The return of that name can be ironic," insisted Beppe Severgnini in La Repubblica. "The return of certain complaints would be pathetic."
Marchisio's red card conditioned the game. Luis Suarez was more deserving of one for biting Giorgio Chiellini, an incident that escaped Moreno's attention (which is unsurprising, really, considering that it was difficult to see in real time without the help of a replay). But the overall impression of Italy's World Cup campaign shouldn't change.
Let's not forget Leonardo Bonucci could also have had a penalty blown against him for a foul on Edinson Cavani in the sixth minute, and Gigi Buffon was the man of the match, coming to his side's rescue with a series of stops from Nicolas Lodeiro, Cavani and Suarez.
First to appear in front of the microphones, the Italy captain told it how it really is. "I am very sad for us as a football movement, as a group, as individual players and as a nation," Buffon said. "It's the day of a failure. It's useless to deny it. We are coming to terms with the harsh reality of a team that in the end hasn't scored in its last two games, creating little and that's deservedly going out."
To pick up on that, Italy mustered only one shot on goal against Uruguay (a Pirlo free-kick) and managed just five in their encounter with Costa Rica, countries with a combined population less than the region of Lombardy, with Milan as its capital.
It's remarkable how quickly the situation and the mood has changed since the England game. Celebrated the world over for their Tikitalia, amassing a then-tournament-high 554 passes and establishing a completion-rate record of 93.4 percent, those statistics, as Beppe Bergomi noted in his commentary on Sky Italia, perhaps didn't tell the whole story.
England fielded a very attacking lineup with Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck. They played faster and looser than Italy's other opponents, which meant there was more space to attack and more chances to be had. And while Pirlo got the plaudits along with Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian, the decisive contribution of stand-in goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu was perhaps overlooked. He was forced into several saves.
Italy's form going into the tournament hadn't been encouraging, either. There were warning signs. Without a win in seven before they swept Fluminense 5-3 in their final warm-up game, the explanation given was that after qualifying with two matches to spare, the Azzurri relaxed.
Another caveat was Prandelli's approach to friendlies. He has always put testing and experimentation first and results second. Concerns were mitigated by his record in official competition. Up until the World Cup, Prandelli had only lost two competitive games in almost four years. The sense was that everything would be all right on the night and so it looked in Manaus.
But the defence preoccupied. Once a strength, it was now a perceived weakness. Six of the 12 goals Italy conceded this season were from headers, and they were their undoing in Brazil. Costa Rica's and Uruguay's winners came from this source: crosses nodded in by Bryan Ruiz and Diego Godin. Security was lacking. There was an uncertainty to Italy's play. In part, that was caused by injuries and Prandelli's shape-shifting. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Riccardo Montolivo's leg-break against Ireland provoked the change from 4-3-1-2 to 4-1-4-1, and Daniele De Rossi's thigh strain [in addition to the underwhelming display against Costa Rica] brought about the move to 3-5-2.
After the Costa Rica defeat, Gianluca Vialli recommended that Italy eschew the over-elaborate and go back to basics. Italy's chameleon-like tactical adaptability was supposed to be a forte; instead it caused confusion. Maybe trying to be too clever for his own good, Prandelli appeared like someone twisting and rotating a Rubik's cube unable to find the right combination.
His squad and team selections came under scrutiny. He abandoned his philosophy against Uruguay, playing for a draw, and went into it with a pair of strikers in Balotelli and Ciro Immobile who had never played together before. It was a disaster. Balotelli got booked for a crazy challenge, would have been suspended for the Round of 16, and was taken off at halftime for fear he would be sent off. Immobile, meanwhile, found the going tough, got cramped and had to be replaced.
And so Italy ended with Antonio Cassano (and Chiellini) up front. Prandelli's decision to take only two centre-forwards and not bring another, leaving the likes of Giuseppe Rossi, Mattia Destro and Alberto Gilardino at home, always threatened to be something he would regret and he must do now. Afterward, the coach questioned his decision to put Balotelli at the centre of his project and the faith he has placed in him. Buffon also appeared to be referring to him when he pointedly said: "You often hear that there's need for renewal, that Pirlo is old, Buffon is old, Barzagli is old, De Rossi is old, but when the cart needs a push we're always the first in line. I think that they need a little more respect.
"We need to start rewarding and giving credit to those who earn it on the pitch, not those who get themselves talked about. Because when you go on the pitch the 'could do' or maybe 'will do' is no longer enough. On the pitch you need to do."
"We need real men," De Rossi added. "Not [Panini] stickers or celebrities."
Prandelli's resignation is a shame. Much of the reaction has focused on how Italy have been knocked out in the group stages in back-to-back World Cups for the first time since 1966. The great deal of good Prandelli has done between 2010 and 2014 seems to have quickly been forgotten. Italy were runners-up at the European Championship two years ago and finished third at the Confederations Cup last summer. Their group in Brazil was harder than it was in South Africa. Their schedule exposed them on average to higher temperatures and humidity than any other team in the tournament -- a 9 a.m. game in Manaus followed by two 1 p.m. kickoffs in the full glare of the midday sun). Ultimately, they were edged by a South American team playing in familiar conditions.
Not everyone accepted the mitigating factors. "Enough excuses, calcio must change," wrote Mario Sconcerti in Il Corriere della Sera. Reform is being demanded, and yet the outgoing coach has been the biggest agent of change Italian football has known for decades. Prandelli changed Italy's mentality. He brought the national team closer to the people, taking training in areas afflicted by organised crime and natural disasters in a show of solidarity. He rewarded those who stood up to match-fixing. And his ethical code, though often a source of controversy and claims of hypocrisy, was noble in intention.
He wanted to make players more accountable and responsible for their actions. Prandelli followed his own example by doing just that last night. "I have spoken with the president and given that this project is my responsibility, I have decided to offer my resignation. It is irrevocable because when a project fails it is right to take responsibility."
Max Allegri, Roberto Mancini and Luciano Spalletti are the front-runners to replace him. A successor will need to be in place by September when the qualifiers for the Euros begin. Still, the sensation remains, even after this "wreck," as La Gazzetta called it, that Italy would be better off had Prandelli stayed on and honored the new contract he signed before the tournament until 2016.
A bad four weeks shouldn't cancel out a good four years. But that's football, unfortunately.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.