On a night like tonight, one has to wonder whether there is something wrong at the heart of the psyche of the Italian national football team. They stand alone amongst the Great Football Nations in that they are prone to these bouts of extreme sudden clumsiness. No-one is going to suggest for a second that the Confederations Cup ranks anywhere near the World Cup in terms of prestige, importance or, well, anything, but it remains a tantalising possibility – did the ghosts of North Korea in 1966, Cameroon in 1982 and South Korea in 2002 drift silently and invisibly across the pitch at Ellis Park this evening. Just as England may never win a penalty shootout, are Italy to be forever doomed to the possibility of losing to opposition that they should, theoretically, be able to beat.
The alternative, of course, is that common consensus has got things wrong. Egypt have been out of sorts of late, but they are deservedly the African champions and also the country of Al-Ahly, whose current team may just be the strongest that African club football has ever seen. It is wrong, in this day and age, to make patronising assumptions about what might once have been called football from Africa. There was only one team in Johannesberg this evening showing defensive naivete and that was the team in washed out blue and a colour halfway between brown and purple which will henceforth be known as “brurple”.
Italy dominated the first half, but their possession didn’t count for much in real opportunities. We had spent much of the first half wondering about whether there would be a repeat of Egypt’s defending from corners against Brazil last Sunday, but when the only goal of the match came five minutes from half-time it was Italy that were guilty of the sloppiness. They had received a shot across the bows a few seconds prior when Buffon pushed Hosny’s shot around the post. Mohammed Aboutrika’s corner from the right hand side was met by Mohammed Homos, who glanced the ball in at the far post while the Italian defenders stood around like they were waiting for a bus.
In the second half, the better football continued to come from Egypt. Italy pushed forward, and Egypt broke swiftly and economically. As time wore on, Italy became more and more desperate. The balls became longer and higher and, although Italy had chances to score, these were either wasted – as with Iaquinta’s shot straight at El-Hadary – or through chance, when Iaquinta’s cross drifted over the Egyptian goalkeeper and came back off the crossbar. In the dying seconds we were treated to Buffon, the red-clad Italian goalkeeper making a cameo appearance in the Egyptian penalty area, but not even this was enough to alter events.
Group B now stands on a fascinating knife-edge. Italy lead Egypt by one goal on goal difference, but they have to play Brazil in their final group match, while Egypt play the USA. The potential permutations of these two matches are enough to make steam appear from most people’s ears upon thinking about it for longer than approximately twenty seconds. The Confederations Cup may not be the greatest football tournament that the world has ever known, but it has given us something to talk about over the last couple of weeks. Italy, however, may be wondering about the wisdom of their summer holiday in South Africa.