JOHANNESBURG - Father Time finally caught up with poor old Italy on Thursday when they were deposed as world champions after suffering a dramatic and shocking 3-2 defeat at the hands of World Cup debutants Slovakia.
An ageing squad, debilitating injuries and the admission after the match from coach Marcello Lippi that he had not trained his men well enough for the World Cup all contributed to their woeful performance in their three Group F matches.
Their 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand and Thursday's defeat left Italy at the bottom of the section.
Although few people expected Italy to retain the crown they won four years ago, most observers thought they would at least reach the knockout stages.
However, their inability to overcome even a relatively modest team like Slovakia illustrates just how far Italy have fallen since winning the World Cup four years ago.
The performance of 36-year-old centre-back and captain Fabio Cannavaro, Italy's record caps holder, summed that up perfectly.
The world player of the year in 2006, he looked a completely different person in Ellis Park where he was again beaten for pace and lost his positional sense time and again.
By a strange quirk of fate, France, who lost on penalties to Italy in the World Cup final in Germany four years ago, also finished bottom of their group.
For the first time ever, the two finalists from the previous tournament have both gone out in the group stage.
But while France's dramatic implosion was largely unexpected, the writing has been on the wall for the Italians for some time - although few predicted they would fail so dismally.
After opening with a 1-1 draw against eventual group winners Paraguay, which was not unduly criticised back home, Italy's campaign nosedived dramatically last Sunday when they were held to a 1-1 draw by outsiders New Zealand in Nelspruit.
The result, the greatest in that country's football history, represented one of Italy's lowest points in their long World Cup story and one of the biggest shocks in the tournament ever.
Thursday's defeat by Slovakia, no matter how thrilling and tense it was, brought absolute confirmation, if it was needed, that Italy's time was up.
Lippi has been criticised since returning to the job of national coach two years ago for sticking too rigidly with too many players from the World Cup-winning side of 2006.
He was not helped by injuries to goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, or midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who came on as a second half substitute, but even with them fully fit it is doubtful if Italy would have gone all that much further.
Five of Thursday's starting lineup were 30 or over and they gave the impression of men who had seen and done it all before and possibly took Slovakia's threat a little too lightly.
In stark contrast, Slovakia's mostly journeymen players, battled, ran and harried for every ball. They were far more concise in their passing and support play and, prompted by Marek Hamsik, who is with Napoli, played with a belief Italy lacked.
Robert Vittek took both his goals superbly, and Miroslav Stoch and Jan Durica more than matched the accomplished Gennaro Gattuso and Daniele De Rossi in their midfield duels.
To their credit, Italy did not go down without a fight, battling back from 2-0 and then 3-1 down to reduce the arrears and Fabio Quagliarella scored with a fabulous chip in injury time to keep Italy's lingering hopes alive.
The match brought to a close Lippi's second spell as Italy coach and also saw the end of the international careers of Cannavaro and Gennaro Gattuso after the trio said this would be their last tournament with the national side.
Lippi will be succeeded by Cesare Prandelli, who has left Fiorentina to toake over, but the new coach is unlikely to be able to mould a world-beating team in the foreseeable future.
On the evidence of the last week or so, Italy's young guns have yet to reach the level of the older generation.
Unless Prandelli unearths some major young talent for the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign which starts later this year, Italy could well be struggling for some time to come.comments