You have to respect the Italian fans. They’re the only set of fans in the whole of the World Cup that are even more pessimistic than England’s. They dropped two points against the USA (whose sole tactic appeared to be kick the Italians very hard), and the country was plumetted into depression. There was nothing really to base this on, of course. They had been unfortunate (the sort of own goal they conceded happens to any team once in a decade), and, on balance, it was a match that they deserved to win. All Italy really needed was a point, so why did they decide that this would be the team that would become the first Italian not to reach the group phases since 1974? This is, after all, an Italy team that hasn’t lost a World Cup match in ninety minutes since 1986. Incredible, but true.
They needn’t have panicked, of course. The Czechs had put in real Jekyll & Hyde performances against Ghana and the USA respectively. A team that had gone from one being talked about to reach the quarter-finals (or possibly to go further) was suddenly in trouble. Their confidence had been shot to pieces by the Ghana match and, by half-time, they were as good as on their way home. Materazzi’s header from a corner (from which the Czechs had inexplicably decided not to leave a man on the post) and a sending-off for Jan Polak (a second yellow card that could quite quite justifiably have been a straight red).
Meanwhile, Ghana were involved with the USA, but weren’t making many fans for themselves in the process. After they scored (a neat goal from Dramani, after fiercely taking the ball from Claudio Reyna), the fouling got worse, and the play-acting started. Perhaps surprisingly, referee Markus Merk (usually one of the better referees) didn’t spot it. DaMarcus Beasley intercepted a poor pass and crossed for Dempsey to score on the half-volley, but the real turning point came right on half-time, when Onyewu committed the ultimate crime of winning a good header against Pimpyong. To a chorus of booing from the largely American crowd, Appiah sent Keller the wrong way.
Meanwhile, back in Hamburg, events were unfolding that would render the Ghana result less important. Nedved missed a couple of great chances, and with three minutes to play, Philipe Inzaghi (who is largely disliked in Italy) tied things up. In the other match, Ghana were playing out the second half through the medium of time-wasting, kicking and diving. It wasn’t a terribly edifying spectacle. Still, you couldn’t help but be glad that one African team had made it through to the second round. They’re no longer the automatic European neutral’s favourite, having long since dispensed with the sort of open, attractive football that characterized Cameroon’s run to the quarter-finals in 1990 in favour of gamesmanship.
Italy are, in spite of what they think of themselves, well worth their place in the second round. Before this started, I fancied them and Argentina, and I still think that they are the best two teams. Ghana deserve their place in the second round for their win over the Czechs. Their defence may suffer against the Brazilians though. The Czechs… well. Against the USA, they were magnificent, but we may never find out what happened in the days inbetween that match and their match against Ghana. As for the Americans… off back home with their tails between their legs. For the second time in a row in Europe, they’ve been found out as woefully inadequate at the top level. After the optimism that they were filled with four years ago, it’s back to the drawing board for them.