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Crying In Their Cappuccino

Posted by Kevin Cullen  June 24, 2010 08:31 PM

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There were cries of pain, like someone had broken a limb, in Caffe Paradiso.

Across Hanover Street, in Caffe dello Sport, even the Albanian waiters looked like they were going to cry.

This couldn't be happening.

But it was. Italy, four-time world champions, gone. To Slovakia, of all teams.

Arrivederci Azzurri.

You could see it coming. Last year, in the Confederations Cup, the warm up tournament for the World Cup, Italy looked long in the tooth. They only got a year older, a step slower.

But it was still hard to watch, because the World Cup just isn't the World Cup without the Azzurri hanging around at least until the quarterfinals or semifinals. This is the first time Italy went out in the group stage since 1974.

Whatever this does to the psyche of Italy it will do to Hanover Street and the whole of the North End. It is fun to watch World Cup games in real soccer pubs, like The Banshee, Ray Butler's shrine to football in Dorchester, or Kevin Treanor's gritty Phoenix Landing in Central Square in Cambridge. But watching the beautiful game in any of the caffes along Hanover Street is a unique Boston experience, like riding the swan boats or listening to the Pops on the Fourth of July. Because Italians love the game, and their love is infectious. Even Brazilians drive in town to watch games in the North End.

And so it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Italy fans in a way that was not possible watching a similar self-destruction by France a couple of days before. The French, who shouldn't have been in the World Cup finals to begin with, collapsed in a sea of recrimination, all of their wounds self-inflicted. Their players were petulant and immature.

The Italians, notoriously slow starters, just never got going. They may have underperformed, but this was a team that struggled from the get go. Two of their best players - shutdown goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and field general Andrea Pirlo - were hurt and barely played.

When Marcello Lippi, Italy's coach, finally inserted midfield maestro Pirlo 56 minutes into the final of three group stage games, it was too little too late. Pirlo breathed life into the Italian attack and they cut Slovakia's lead to 2-1. But then Italian defenders looked like the old guys who sit in Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street and a last-minute Slovakian substitute ran right by them and put in what would be the third goal and ultimate difference.

In that moment, Fabio Cannavaro, Italy's maginificent captain, looked all his 36 years and more.

You got the sense it just wasn't meant to be for Italy. Buffon, one of the best keepers in the world, hurt his back in the opener, and his replacement, Federico Marchetti, stopped exactly one shot the rest of the way.

Four years ago, when Italy won the Cup, they conceded only two goals, neither of them from play. The only things that got past Buffon were a penalty shot and an own goal. In their three-game flame-out, five of the six shots on Italy's goal went in. Not exactly the percentage of champions.

The World Cup goes on, without Italy, the defending champions, or France, the 2006 finalists. It's a lesser experience, especially without the Italians, who always seem to find a way to start slow and find a groove. No groove this time.

France's coach, Raymond Domenech, went out like a stooge, refusing to shake hands with his South African counterpart. Lippi went out with class, accepting blame for poor selection and tactics. But coaches don't play the games.

It was telling, and a bit sad, that Italy's final tally, a delicate, precisely placed chip by Fabio Quagliarella, was the prettiest, most creative goal of the tournament so far. The loss of Italian creativity and beauty at this stage seems just way too early.

The North End is still a great place to watch the rest of the Cup games. It won't be the same without the Azzurri in the running. But the people in the caffes along Hanover Street need the company more than ever.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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