JOHANNESBURG - Italy tried to hide their failings behind the age-old image of being slow starters but it was age and slowness that sent them out of the World Cup with a whimper, and now the future of Italian football is under scrutiny.
The holders slope home on Friday with their tails between their legs after a nightmare 3-2 capitulation against Slovakia in their final Group F game which summed up their lax preparation and lack of confidence.
To exit the tournament in the group stage as champions is bad enough, but to not win a match has prompted unprecedented soul-searching in Italy, where just four years ago the streets were filled with jubilant fans who were on top of the world.
Midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who now retires from internationals, was brutally honest about his side's dreadful showing in the 1-1 draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and the shock defeat by World Cup debutants Slovakia in Johannesburg.
"Four years ago we were hailed as champions, today we are playing like billy goats. We made a very bad impression," Gattuso told reporters.
"I think Italian soccer has reached the bottom and we all have to take responsibility. The curtain falls."
The fact Italy have held their hands up and said they were not good enough is a refreshing change compared to the moaning which followed early exits at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004.
Back then the Azzurri and the nation blamed bed refereeing decisions and gamesmanship from their opponents for their departures. But this time nobody could argue that their downfall was anything other than self-inflicted.
Coach Marcello Lippi, who may now be wondering why he ever returned to the job in 2008 having reached the pinnacle of his career two years earlier, was surprisingly frank in accepting all the responsibility for the appalling performances.
"I really firmly believed that the men I chose would have been able to offer something different," Lippi said.
"This time I wasn't capable of motivating the guys like I should have, not to win the World Cup but to keep our standards high."
He now departs for a second time, a pre-arranged move which saves Lippi some of the flak which will come the team's way, although top sports websites were running headlines of "Back home in shame" and "It's your fault Lippi" on their front pages.
Former Fiorentina boss Cesare Prandelli has the unenviable task of succeeding Lippi, given the ageing World Cup squad will now disband and there is little quality in the Italian league.
Fabio Cannavaro, 36, went from being the best defender in 2006 to one of the worst in 2010 and the fact he now heads for semi-retirement with Al Ahli in Dubai after no one else wanted to buy him from Juventus shows the depths to which he has sunk.
Lippi stuck by him because he felt he needed a leader with World-Cup-winning experience but instead Cannavaro's mistakes led to the goals for Paraguay and New Zealand while he was again shaky against Slovakia.
The problem for Prandelli is that there is no outstanding Italian defender around apart from Giorgio Chiellini, with squad members Salvatore Bocchetti and Leonardo Bonucci inexperienced and not in the class of former greats like Paolo Maldini.
An even bigger issue for Italy is the lack of pace and trickery in the squad, with almost no options available back in Serie A.
Inter Milan may be European champions but not one of their starting 11 in the Champions League final was Italian and they are not at all representative of the scarce talent in Serie A.
Sampdoria playmaker Antonio Cassano, ignored by Lippi, is possibly the only Italian to have the ability to unlock defences with a bit of magic, while Inter's reserve forward Mario Balotelli is a teenage rebel but has pace and much-needed unpredictability.comments