Italy bowed out in the group stages.
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The 2006 World Cup final in Germany will always be remembered for the final act of Zinedine Zidane’s career – his sending off for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the chest - but both finalists, Italy and France, will now be remembered for a different reason.
In failing to make it out of the groups four years later, they have placed themselves into the history books as being the only previous World Cup finalists to have gone out at such an early stage when both have qualified for the next year’s tournament.
There have been three instances in which neither finalist advanced because one failed to qualify: Uruguay did not go in 1934 and Hungary failed in 1950, while Czechoslovakia missed out in 1966 with holders Brazil failing to get out of their group as star player Pele was literally kicked out of the competition. But few teams in the future will come close to matching Italy and France’s failings at South Africa 2010.
Italy’s functional style of play under Marcello Lippi saw them lift the trophy in 2006, but now they have replaced function with friction as Lippi’s tactics have raised eyebrows in the Italian media and within the squad. Many neutrals would have noticed a distinct lack of star quality in the squad as names like Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Alessandro Nesta were replaced by those of Simone Pepe, Claudio Marchisio and Domenico Criscito.
They simply have not got the players to mount a realistic challenge to the trophy again and although many expected them to get out of the group, they have been shown up on the biggest of stages. The signs were there with after an early draw with Paraguay, but a shocking 1-1 result against New Zealand confirmed many critics’ worst fears. A final, awful, defeat to Slovakia saw the world champions slink home in disgrace.
France, of course, chose to conduct their personal affairs in public and their woes have been well-documented. Bringing Zidane back for the 2006 tournament was a stroke of genius as he carried the side to the final, but there was precious little inspiration in Raymond Domenech’s team.
Bizarre tactical decisions from the coach, as well as the public in-fighting, contributed to their exit but, like Italy, France lacked the big-name players of 2006. Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, David Trezeguet and, of course, Zidane.
While much of the focus in South Africa has been on the African teams’ progress (or lack thereof) after such hype before the tournament, two of the European heavyweights will certainly dominate the headlines as the group stages come to a close.
Whoever makes it through to the final on July 11 at Soccer City would do well to heed the warning of the previous finalists. No one is too good to go out.