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Italians question nationhood after football defeat

June 24, 2010

by Guy Dinmore, June 24 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Heartbreak for millions of Italians on Thursday as the defending champions were humbled by Slovakia and dumped out of the first round of the World Cup, but it was a defeat made even more bitter by the reaction of nation-denying leaders of a party in Silvio Berluscono’s coalition government who poured scorn on the team’s shambolic performance.

As Italy followed France in an early exit from South Africa, commentators also asked whether their defeats were symptomatic of “old Europe”, teams of ageing players with little creativity laid low by a new emerging world order.

Even as the Italian team had struggled to draw against both Paraguay and lowly New Zealand in their opening matches, leaders of the Milan-based and anti-immigration Northern League — who have in the past campaigned for an independent “Padania” in northern Italy — had made clear they would not be supporting the national team.

Roberto Calderoli, a minister in the central government, rubbed salt into the wounds on Thursday, declaring: “What a disgrace. Simply ridiculous. Paid millions but with legs of jelly and short of breath .”

“This premature elimination is nothing other than the result of a demented sports policy,” he said, blaming Italy’s poor performance on the influx of “deluxe immigrants” who he said left no space for Italian youth in the top divisions so that even Milan’s Inter, which won the Champions League, succeeded with a team completely made up of foreigners.

“To come back to Italy the team does not deserve a business-class flight. If there were a trans-African train they should come back with that!” said Piergiorgio Stiffoni, a Northern League senator, comparing Marcello Lippi, the Italian manager, with France’s Rayond Domenech – “lots of arrogance and nothing more”.

For most Italians disappointment and anger was aimed at Lippi who, almost in tears at the post-match press conference, immediately announced his resignation, saying he took full responsibility.

“Lippi relied too much on Juventus,” said Chiara, a bar owner reflecting the mood of many Romans that the Azzurri was overly Turin-heavy and should have brought in more diversity and younger players.

“It is a second Caporetto,” exclaimed one man, referring to the rout of the Italian army in 1917 by combined Austro-Hungarian and German forces.

Historic references abounded in the bars of Rome as Italians questioned whether they really were a nation, a debate that has gripped the media and revealed deep divisions within Mr Berlusconi’s coalition as the country marks the 150th anniversary of its unification with the landing in Sicily of Garibaldi’s small army.

“You Brits are a nation. We are not. So no one will cry,” said Silvano, watching the match in The Albert, an English pub in Rome. But outside people were crying.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media baron who also owns the Milan football club, had no immediate comment.

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