A tale of two teams: Australia, Italy and the World Cup

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    Australia chose a rather roundabout, and dangerous, way of getting to the finals of the FIFA World Cup.

    Qualifying by playing a South or Central American opponent has its pitfalls, the most memorable being Argentina at the Allianz Stadium in 1993. On that occasion, the valiant Australians went down, if only just, after losing the return leg in Buenos Aires following a draw in Sydney.

    The Honduran side could not boast players of Argentina’s ilk, but they did have the element of anonymity and surprise. Their coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, was in a conservative frame of mind, attempting to asphyxiate play in the middle of the park. The hostilities at San Pedro Sula would also have benefited.

    As matters transpired, the Australians managed to hold their own in the first away leg. With Honduras failing to squeeze anything into the Australian net in front of a home crowd, it was left to the Socceroos to do the rest in Australia. They scored three times, twice from the penalty spot.

    Luck was finally on the side of a team scolded and berated for stretches of the campaign. Their previous encounter with an unfancied Syria drew barbs of criticism. But after 22 games played over 29 months, Australia had booked their place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a point that took time to settle among the 70,000 in attendance.

    Seeing the Australians qualify belied a gruelling struggle and a campaign of hostility against Australian coach Ange Postecoglou.

    Last month, a swirling question mark hovered over his future. Was his head on the chopping block? Had he, in fact, put it there himself?

    “My focus,” he felt compelled to say in rather fatalistic fashion, “is these two games. If we don’t get through these two games, there’s no decision to make. That’s the one certainty.”

    Australian fortune could be contrasted with violent sharpness to Italy’s fate. To not see the Azzurri reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958 was seismic, even unsettling.

    Not that Australian fans would have minded. Many still remember the encounter in Round 16 of the 2006 World Cup, when Australia’s Lucas Neill tripped Italy’s Fabio Grosso in Kaiserslautern’s Fritz Walter Stadium. The resulting penalty was the only goal scored in the match. Italy would go on to win their fourth World Cup.

    The infamous penalty conceded by Lucas Neill to Italy's Fabian Grosso in 2006

    (Image: AFP)

    As Grosso would subsequently say, “In this instance when Neill slid in, maybe I accentuated it a little bit. However, you must remember it was the last minute of an extremely difficult game and everyone was tired.”

    Australian fans were less forgiving about the showmanship: Grosso, so went the line, had cheated.

    Before the spectators of the San Siro in Milan, Sweden managed to hold the Italians to a scoreless draw, winning by an aggregate of one goal over both legs. The Swedes had effectively done what so many Italian sides have done before: defend their way to victory.

    La Gazetta dello Sport went so far as to term the failure “the apocalypse”. “We will not be with you and you will not be with us. Italy will not participate in the World Cup. There will be inevitable consequences.”

    The most immediate consequence was the fate of Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura, who seemed fairly phlegmatic about the axeman.

    “Until the playoff we were progressing as foreseen, then we’ve been unlucky not to score against them. I apologise to the Italians. Only for the result, not for the effort we put in every game.”

    It was certainly an effort that prompted questions. At home, the Italians could only muster a one-all draw against Macedonia. In UEFA World Cup qualifying Group G, they finished five points behind group winners Spain, pitting them against the Swedes.

    Ventura did not have long to wait for his fate.

    “During a meeting called by FIGC president Carlo Tevecchio,” a FIGC statement on Wednesday said, “the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was discussed.”

    Rather brutally, the statement went on to mention the “first order of business” with finality: “from today onwards, Gian Piero Ventura is no longer coach of the national team.”

    Ventura’s initial reluctance to resign, rather than face the sack, seemed to have been prompted by false hope, if not a total lack of awareness.

    Oddly enough, his counterpart in Australia will not necessarily be faring much better. Postecoglou has never felt supported in his role in Australian football, and has his eye on an international football club. Australian football, he feels, has yet to discover self-respect.

    Sweden’s Janne Andersson, in contrast, will be merrily preparing for his country’s campaign in Russia. For football boffins of a slightly superstitious bent, the occasion of Sweden’s most successful World Cup was the very same tournament Italy failed to qualify for: 1958.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • Roar Rookie

      November 18th 2017 @ 8:15am
      Grobbelaar said | November 18th 2017 @ 8:15am | ! Report

      Looking at that photo of Grosso going down, 11 years on, I think we can all now agree that it looks like a penalty.

      • November 18th 2017 @ 11:07am
        Gavin R said | November 18th 2017 @ 11:07am | ! Report

        His technique at executing the tackle was awful. Grosso made a meal of it but he was gifted the opportunity

      • November 18th 2017 @ 1:57pm
        me too said | November 18th 2017 @ 1:57pm | ! Report

        never trust a photo, he deliberately ran straight into neil to milk it. can’t blame him though – yes it was a penalty, but the refs at that world cup were awful, i’d be making it crystal clear as well.
        australia got reamed a lot – first goal by japan, brasil being looked after, 3 yellows to siminuc, the bizarre non-penalty- non-goal to close the croatian game – but not in this instance.

        • November 18th 2017 @ 4:37pm
          chris said | November 18th 2017 @ 4:37pm | ! Report

          Yes totally agree. The big nations get a leg up in most instances at the WC. Poll resigned after his abysmal effort in the Aus V Croatia game. How was Viduka being tackled (and I mean tackled!) by Simunic not a pen?

    • Roar Rookie

      November 18th 2017 @ 11:44am
      Lance Skelton said | November 18th 2017 @ 11:44am | ! Report

      I think Australia will give a good account of themselves at the next World Cup.
      If Ange doesn’t hang around, I hope his tactics do. Australia can play some pretty attractive
      football, and if you look back over their results in the last 10 -15 years, they’ve knocked over
      some pretty formidable teams, even if they were classed as friendlies.

      I hope Ange hangs around for the World Cup because it’s the biggest tournament in World Sport, and
      I think the players believe in the way he wants them to play.

      It might come down to ‘money’ and that’s where David Gallop and the boys might have to dig a bit
      deeper into their pockets to keep him on board.

    • Roar Guru

      November 18th 2017 @ 11:51am
      Ben of Phnom Penh said | November 18th 2017 @ 11:51am | ! Report

      There seems to be many an article discussing the woes of Italy yet regrettably few discussing the merits of the Swedes. Given their performances against France, the Netherlands and Italy it would be reasonable to conclude that the World Cup is all the richer for the inclusion of Blagult.

      • November 18th 2017 @ 1:19pm
        JR Salazar said | November 18th 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

        Now, they just need Zlatan as their mascot…voila!

      • Roar Rookie

        November 18th 2017 @ 7:38pm
        Grobbelaar said | November 18th 2017 @ 7:38pm | ! Report

        But can they shake their long held tag as the Nordic dullards?

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