Italy won the World Cup in staggeringly impressive form back in 2006, and, despite an underwhelming Euro 2008 campaign, were confident heading into Group F in 2010. They were confident because they had the bulk of their World Cup 2006 squad still in their ranks, their manager, Marcello Lippi, who had rejoined the coaching set up with the national side after a two year absence, and the fact that they were drawn in an easy group featuring Paraguay, Slovakia and lowly New Zealand. New Zealand appeared to be happy just to qualify, with the finals in South Africa being only their second World Cup appearance, their last coming back in 1982. The reigning world champions against one of the lowest ranked teams at the tournament. The result was surely cut and dry…
One of Italy’s main assets is that they boast one of the greatest goalkeepers of the modern generation. Gianluigi Buffon was heroic for Italy in their World Cup triumph in Berlin four years earlier, so when he was ruled out of the tournament in South Africa, after only 45 minutes of action, there was some concern from the Italian fan base. Federico Marchetti was his replacement. He was a highly thought of young goalkeeper, but there was no getting away from the fact that the young Cagliari shot stopper was no Gigi Buffon.
The fears were justified after just seven minutes against New Zealand. Simon Elliot curled in a penetrating free kick from the left. It looped over the majority of players in the penalty area, and found Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro. Cannavaro got his angles all wrong, and watched as the ball bounced off his thigh and into the path of the incoming Shane Smeltz. Marchetti opted to stay on the goal line, giving Smeltz the time and space he needed to fire the All Whites into the lead.
Smeltz’s reaction to scoring said it all. He darted away from goal, a look of elation and surprise plastered over the German-born New Zealanders face. He rushed over to the fans, raising his arms aloft, basking in the moment of history that he had just created. Italy were used to getting the run around from New Zealand in rugby, but football, no, this was uncharted territory. Like most pieces of history created at the South African World Cup, the soundtrack is the monotonous drone of a thousand vuvuzelas.
Italy were stung by this Smeltz goal, but they had an abundance of talent, and set about trying to forge their way back into the tie. Daniele De Rossi passed to Fiorentina playmaker Riccardo Montolivo just over the halfway line. Montolivo brought it forward to about 30 yards from goal and unleashed a powerful shot that left New Zealand ‘keeper Mark Paston rooted to the spot. The ball hit the post and ricocheted out of play. It was a stark reminder to New Zealand that the lead that they were working hard to hold on to could diminish in a flash.
Italy found their way back into the match just prior to the half hour mark. Would-be winger Giorgio Chiellini delivered a perfect cross into the box. De Rossi would have scored a simple header had the Roma midfielder not had his feet taken from under him by Tommy Smith. The New Zealanders hardly had a complaint, if anything they were lucky not to see Smith sent off for the denial of a goal scoring opportunity. Juventus forward Vincenzo Iaquinta was given the responsibility of taking the penalty, and scored, slotting it to his right, as Mark Paston dived left. Italy’s best moment of the tournament probably was the goal celebration of this penalty, De Rossi blowing an imaginary vuvuzela being particularly hilarious.
If Italy had thought that by drawing level, the rest of the game would be plain sailing, then they were grossly misguided. New Zealand’s game plan hadn’t changed, they were still content with sitting deep and hitting the Azzurri on the break.
Into the second half and Montolivo chipped in a delightful pass to the ageing Antonio Di Natale, one of two half-time substitutes made by Lippi. The pass caught the defence off guard, allowing Di Natale to turn and volley into the arms of Mark Paston. The shot would have had to be something special to beat Paston, but it was still good goalkeeping to avoid parrying it out in front of him.
Argentine born Mauro Camoranesi shimmied his way past the high pressing New Zealand midfielders, before picking out Riccy Montolivo deep in the New Zealand half. Montolivo again picked up the ball, ran at the defence and took an audacious shot from outside the box. This was saved by Pastor, again, and deflected into the middle of the box, resulting in a foot race between Di Natale and Ryan Nelson. Not quite the Usain Bolt’s of the World Cup, but over five yards both players could hustle. Nelson got their first, hooking the ball high and far.
New Zealand did manage to get forward a good amount during the game, one highlight seeing Smeltz and Christie link up in the middle of the park, with Christie threading a pass through to Chris Wood. Wood’s shot evaded the outstretched hand of Marchetti, but pulled agonisingly wide of the post.
It was starting to feel like it wasn’t Italy’s day. Mauro Camoranesi had been brought on to add his unique blend of skill and steel and he showed this up until the moment before the final whistle. He took a heavy touch and had to jump into a tackle with Chris Wood to retain possession. He then rocketed a shot towards goal, again, from outside the box. He harnessed the power of the infamous Jabulani football, watching it arch and dip in the air, only to be denied a fine goal by even finer goalkeeping. Pastor was having a game not to dissimilar to Guillermo Ochoa, four years later!
The final whistle blew and New Zealand had pulled off a historic result. They may not have secured all three points against Italy, but to take the lead, and then grind out a point against the reigning world champions was no mean feat for a nation who played their qualifying games against predominantly armature opponents such as Tonga and Tahiti. For Italy, the nightmare continued. They had only drawn against Paraguay in their first game, and would go on to lose to Slovakia in their final group game. Both teams would exit the tournament in the Group Stage, but the Oceanic team would be much more content with their endeavours than the Europeans. Ricki Herbert’s New Zealand team may have felt slightly aggrieved to bow out in the groups, as they ended up being the only team at the South African World Cup to avoid defeat. The All Whites may have not won the World Cup, but at least the nation of New Zealand had cause to celebrate one year on, as their pride and joy, the All Blacks, won the Rugby World Cup.
Tomorrow’s game: June 21st. England v Brazil. 2002.