Italy in crisis over World Cup exit

MILAN - Italy, like its neighbour France, was tormented by national soul searching on Friday after the former World Cup champions were humiliated by lowly Slovakia and sent home after the first round in South Africa.

Italian newspapers showed no mercy to the heroes of 2006, saying the defeat showed the weakness of an entire nation.

"Azzurri, the mirror of a country," wrote Oliviero Beha in the independent newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano in a comment on one of Italy's worst ever performances at the World Cup, which it has won four times.

"All black, the worst ever Italy out," the influential sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport said on its front page.

Many commentators compared the Azzurri's poor performance with Italy's economic woes during the Eurozone crisis.

"A country without memory, without identity, without an idea of the future," Beha said.

Italy's two leading newspapers had similar headlines. "Azzurri, defeat and shame," said Corriere della Sera. "Azzurri, shame and tears," said La Repubblica.

A picture of Italy striker Fabio Quagliarella in tears dominated the newspapers.

"This is the result of a process. This is not the failure of a single mission, but a declaration that a kind of soccer in Italy is ending. The problem is what we have become," said Mario Sconcerti in Corriere della Sera.

Coach Marcello Lippi, a national hero when he led the team to their 2006 World Cup triumph, is leaving the job in a prearranged move.

But his extended post-match confession on Thursday night of bad preparation of the team, which critics had repeatedly told him was too old and slow, did little to soften the criticism.

"Lippi has bared his chest but he is leaving, we knew this already," wrote Andrea Monti in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Others did not spare the players, who are coming back on Friday evening and face likely protests from fans.

They follow 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up France who had to have a heavy police escort when they went home on Thursday after finishing bottom of their group like Italy.

The result has caused similar national soul searching and a call from President Nicolas Sarkozy for a complete shake-up of French football.

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