Johnson: French Jeers Turn To Italian Tears

Johnson: French Jeers Turn To Italian Tears
June 20, 2010, 8:55 pm
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Rome, Italy-- First tears in Paris and now tears in Rome. Welcome to Dave Johnson and family on tour in Europe 2010. In short, we know how to kill a party.

Just days removed from the scenes of despair at the Eiffel Tower as French supporters watched their teams loss to Mexico, I was thrust into a similar situation in the Italian capital, where I was surrounded by mostly numb diners in a caf as they watched New Zealand tie their beloved Azzurri 1-1.

As a side note, I watched the U.S.-Slovenia game without sound in a train station in Paris. We, a bar full of French included, cheered when the U.S. scored the apparent game winner. We were confused with no sound to offer explanation of why the goal was called back.

It turns out the sound wouldnt have helped.

What gives with this World Cup? At the risk of stating the obvious, this World Cup is impossible to predict and its not just limited to the thrill ride that is Group C. Just this weekend we witnessed Italys humbling tie, Germanys loss to Serbia, and Cameroons confirmed exit from the tournament after a loss to Denmark.

Italy is the defending champion and like 2006 Marcelo Lippis team looks like it will take time to develop. Sure, against New Zealand Italy was missing midfielder Andrea Pirlo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to injuries, but the Italian performance should have been much better.

At the end of the game Italy had three forwards on the field, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Di Natale, and Giampaolo Pazzini, but still failed to crack New Zealand. Even blanketed by Italian fans it was hard not to watch with glowing pride as New Zealands defense was led by Ryan Nelsen.

Nelsen anchored the middle of the defense on the last D.C. United team to win an MLS Cup back in 2004. It was clear then that jovial kiwi was headed for bigger things and indeed Nelsen has succeeded at the highest level with Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League.

In fact, Nelsen is the captain of the New Zealand and as such gets to be part of just about the coolest scene in sports. As a captain Nelsen gets to be first in line as the teams march on to the field side-by-side behind the FIFA banner and the referees. It really sets the stage for drama.

And drama is what we have had at this World Cup. Italy has to find a way to come to life and get the full three points in its final group match against Slovakia. While the players will need to sort it out on the field, Italian fans can take solace in knowing Lippi is in charge.

At Germany 2006 I watched firsthand how Lippi was able to guide Italy all the way to the trophy despite an anemic start and the controversy from a league match-fixing scandal that was unfolding back home.

The World Cup can be cruel to slow starters, and Italy, like France has been a concern for some time. Italy has not won since a victory over Sweden in a friendly in November and has suffered four draws and a loss to Mexico since.

While Buffon is not likely to return in goal for Italy because of a herniated disk, the return of Pirlo from a calf injury for the match against Slovakia may hold the key to Italys fate. Pirlo plays with elegance and his skill and creativity are sorely missing from a midfield that so far has failed to ignite the Italian offense.