THE VERY split-second the ball crashed into the net, it unleashed a scatter of fireworks and ticker-tape from the sky. An 80,000-strong intake of breath, almost as instantly blasted out again as a bellow. And the inevitable blast of ‘We Are The Champions’, soon to be followed by that oh-so-obvious segue, ‘Nessun Dorma’.
It all added up to intoxicating drama, the night four years ago when Italy were crowned world champions – and Marcelo Lippi was safely lodged in the elite pantheon of World Cup-winning coaches.
There’s where the story ended. And for Lippi, alas, it should have stayed that way – but didn’t.
Nothing will rob him of that July 2006 glory.
But it felt somehow embarrassing not only for him, but those watching – and waiting, indeed, to accuse – for a manager of such stature to be left so forlorn and cravenly apologetic as he was today.
To lose one 2006 World Cup finalists before the 2010 first round has finished might be judged a misfortune – even if they did happen to be France.
To lose two begins to look like carelessness, especially when they are the defending champions.
Today’s dismal 3-2 defeat to Slovakia, coming after 1-1 draws against Paraguay and even more infamously New Zealand, must rank high on the surprisingly-extensive list of Italian World Cup calamities.
Up there with the 1966 humbling by Pak Do-Ik and North Korea, even worse than the contentious 2002 defeat by South Korea, Ahn Jung Hwan and some over-zealous, underwhelming officials.
Today brought glints of controversy for any Italian fans intent on indignation at referee Howard Webb and his officials.
Explosive – and under-used – substitute Fabio Quagliarella thought he had scored twice before the sumptuous chip that finally counted, albeit in vain.
He saw one smart finish ruled out for offside, a decision that might have been right – but perhaps only by as little as the length of a bootlace, or thickness of sock.
Although the linesman’s flag went up instantly, it felt like a wincingly lengthy stretch of time before the bad news had eventually spread through all the Italian players – and supporters.
Quagliarella also saw a volley bounce back off Martin Skrtel’s knee, perilously close to being behind the goal-line.
Yet it’s tricky to imagine any outraged Italians having their hearts quite in it, bearing in mind their most insipid performance – at least, until the last ten to 15 minutes.
In a quite astonishing post-match Press conference, Lippi commandeered his microphone and interrupted the emcee opening the floor for questions.
No, Lippi insisted, he wanted to start by making a statement of his own – which he launched with a suitably no-nonsense: ‘Right.’
The abject apology that followed made it clear he took ‘full responsibility’ for Italy’s woeful performance, having clearly failed to prepare his players ‘psychologically, technically, tactically’.
So sorry was he, at times he looked like he might start crying – while only just stopping short of scourging himself with whips and chains. (These melodramatic Catholics…)
Yet at the same time, while insisting incessantly on how the players should be absolved, his dismay and exasperation at today’s display soaked through.
They played with ‘terror in their hearts, in their heads and in their legs’, he vividly claimed – later yelping: ‘They didn’t press, they didn’t build – they didn’t do anything!’
Admitting he hadn’t expected to retain their trophy, but did expect ‘to progress’, ‘to keep up our standards’, Lippi seemed at a loss to know quite what had gone wrong.
But rather than admit over-estimating his players, he found it easier to admit he must have coached them all wrong – a doubtless genuine regret, though as the session went on he seemed increasingly eager just to get all the soul-searching easily over and done with.
Whatever the motives, his open and humble words certainly offered a stark contrast with the defensive and niggly tones of Raymond Domenech, in similar circumstances on Tuesday.
Domenech, the defeated coach in that 2006 final, was lucky to survive France’s failures at the European Championship two years later.
Italy’s coach for that tournament, Roberto Donadoni, might just be allowing himself a smirk this evening – having been sacked for only reaching the quarter-finals, though only losing on penalties to rampant, eventual champions Spain.
That was when Lippi agreed to return, disregarded that age-old advice ‘Never go back’ – a decision that now looks even more unwise than even the most pessimistic Italians could have imagined.
It has become something of a truism to accuse Lippi of simply picking his 2006 team over again, four debilitating years on.
Of the starting eleven today, five were part of the 2006 squad – Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Gattuso, De Rossi and Iaquinta.
While Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon were only denied starting-places by injury, few would argue with their continued inclusion if available – this summer, anyway.
Indeed, while looking clearly only half-fit still, second-half substitute Pirlo still looked second only to fellow sub Quagliarella as Italy’s most influential performer.
His spraying around of classy passes, into attacking channels, threw into even sharper relief Italy’s witless, long-ball strategy of the first 45 minutes.
Buffon, too, might have offered more composed distribution – and reassuring command of the defence – than his promising, yet hesitant replacement Marchetti.
De Rossi will certainly be a key player – perhaps the key player, and likely captain – under incoming coach Cesare Prandelli.
Zambrotta looked a little uncomfortable and exposed at times today, especially after switching sides at half-time with the substitution of rookie left-back Domenico Criscito – who himself had looked terrified for much of the tournament.
But while Zambrotta’s best days are slowly receding behind him, the two veterans who most failed to live up to Lippi’s faith were – sadly – 2006 dogs of war Gattuso and Cannavaro.
Gattuso’s first game of the tournament, with his imminent retirement from all forms of football already announced, looked from the start like a triumph of hope over reality.
He offered little in his role slightly left of central midfield, neither able to harry and rush opponents like he used to – nor link up the play between Italy’s defence and attack.
The only mark he left was the ugly gash on Strba’s thigh, albeit not inflicted deliberately nor punished by Webb.
After he too was hooked at half-time, post-interval camera shots occasionally caught him looking bewildered on the bench – perhaps, like Lippi, wondering just what had gone so wrong.
Captain Cannavaro made it to the end, both of the match and his 136-cap international career – yet was arguably lucky to do so himself.
He could have been sent off in the first half for two reckless lunges in two minutes, yet more evidence of the loss of judgment and timing gathering apace since, well, that 2006 triumph.
At Real Madrid his once-immaculate reading of the game seemed to go into swift decline, bringing spates of yellow and red cards – or exposure to goals – as he too often rushed headlong out of position.
A couple of neat and sturdy interceptions, deep in defensive territory towards the close of today’s match, showed remnants of the old touch and control.
But while fellow centre-back Chiellini was the one caught out most by Slovakia’s second and third goals, Cannavaro must share the blame for a most unItalian, disorganised defence.
The third goal conceded was particularly basic, substitute Kopenek racing on to a throw-in and lofting the ball over Marchetti with his very first World Cup touch.
(The Slovak forward had been waiting an hour to come on, though, having been called to the touchline when Strba was Gattuso-ed – then hurriedly called back again, when Strba got up again, and just before Webb had noticed.
(Then again, the Slovaks – while more neat and progressive in possession than their two previous group-games – remained rather unsympathetic with all their Italianesque time-swallowing writhing and squirming. The goalkeeper Mucha the most excruciating of them all.)
Clearly Lippi felt his Dubai-bound skipper was the safest option available, with squad back-up Bonucci still seen as more raw than ready.
Despite popular consensus – and though it took him until merely months before the finals – Lippi had begun to discard members of the old guard whose selection could no longer be justified.
Grosso, Ambrosini, Toni and Perrotta were among those moved on, while younger prospects such as Candreva, Criscito and Marchisio brought in – even though the first didn’t quite make the final 23, while the latter pair might well now wish that they hadn’t.
Yet a sense of staleness seemed to pervade the set-up, summed up by the forwards’ desperate struggles to conjure up and score open-play goals.
Even Di Natale, on the back of a heroic, Serie A top-scoring season for relegation battlers Udinese, could not transfer his clinical finishing regularly enough.
Again, however, perhaps Lippi was hamstrung by a shortage of obvious replacements – Totti unreliable, Balotelli obnoxious and distracted, finally-naturalised Amauri as lumbering as Iaquinta but even less prolific.
While wondering just how crisis-ridden Italian football should now feel, Internazionale’s status as European club champions offers only partial solace.
After all, Jose Mourinho’s team that saw off Bayern in the final contained no Italians in the starting line-up, with only ancient warrior Marco Materazzi among the subs – seemingly almost like little more than emotional tokenism.
But perhaps the coach who rotated five strikers so effectively four years ago, and proved so adept at experimental and adventurous formations, shied away from crucial leaps of faith this time around.
Disciples of pie-loving Sampdoria engancheAntonio Cassano can now rally hindsight to their cause.
And Quagliarella’s explosive cameo that very nearly saved Italy despite themselves begs the question: why had he not featured at all until now?
But whether Lippi can feel up to – or bothered about – now tackling such questions remains to be seen, as he vows to take another lengthy break before focusing on whether he wants to return. To any kind of football coaching at all.
As another European ‘super-power’finds themselves gracelessly bundled out of South Africa so soon, part of him must be wishing he’d stayed quit when he was so ahead in the first place.
Today’s grimly compelling – and marvellously melodramatic – scenes? Or a nice long nap in the garden? He chose.