There must have been some nervous bookmakers around the 90th minute of today’s World Cup game between Italy and Australia.
With the score 0-0 and the prospect of extra-time looming with the 10-man Italy team having long used their three substitutes, the 7-1 odds looked dangerously profligate.
Nonetheless, having joined fellow Australians in my local pub (the Bree Louise near Euston station, London), I was watching the concluding minutes through my fingers. It is at times like these when, in the pressure of knockout competition in the world’s premier sporting event, experience tends to tell. The Socceroos were playing only their seventh World Cup finals game, while the Italians have been here forever.
Throughout the game, even when reduced to 10 men by sending off Marco Materazzi in the 50th minute, the Italians had looked more likely to score, although Australia had the bulk of the possession. The Italian defence was rock-solid, their only moment of identifiable error coming in the 83rd minute when Marco Bresciano was not closed down and allowed to line up a shot from just outside the area. It was still, however, in both senses, a long shot. Somehow there was otherwise always an Italian body between the ball and the Australian net.
By contrast, the Socceroo defence had always looked just that fraction uncertain; the Azzurris always dangerous on the break. And in the last three minutes, playing out extra time, the Australian defence appeared consumed by nerves. Nonetheless, it took a piece of Old World cynicism, combined with a lack of refereeing backbone, to finally knock out the Socceroos.
In the 93rd minute Fabio Grosso danced around Bresciano into the box then steamed at Lucas Neill, who twisted himself in knots trying not to foul. It was an effort in vain, for Grosso, rather than going for goal, contrived to artistically fall over the prone body of Neill to secure the penalty.
Francesco Totti, who’d been greeted with boos from some of the Italian supporters when brought on in the 75th minute, stepped up to the spot and made no mistake, drilling a bullet-like shot past Mark Schwarzer, who picked the right side but still had no hope of getting a hand on the ball. The Socceroos were thrown out of the tournament in the final kick of the game. That, as they say, is football.
The Italians will no doubt claim a form of rough justice, that the penalty made up for an “unfair” red card. Materazzi’s tackle on Bresciano, who was through the Italian line but not past the last man, was cynical and rough. It was not a guaranteed red card, but it wasn’t an unreasonable one. The footballing gods don’t do “fair” or provide such neat balances.
ITV’s commentators were suggesting that Guus Hiddink had erred in not throwing another striker into the game and pushing harder after the Italian red card, but I’m sure the man acclaimed up until now for his tactical genius knew what he was doing. Had the option of Harry Kewell — with his power, drive and experience — been available, it might have been different, but he failed to recover in time from a groin injury.
There was no one on the bench to provide the necessary sophistication and footballing nouse. Australia just didn’t have the depth, experience, or sophistication needed at this level.
The Guardian’s commentator is enjoying his laugh about the result. That of course is because the English couldn’t bear Australia going further than they in the tournament, and prove to be the better team.
Now if only the Socceroos had ended up against Sven’s men…