Italy returning to the dark ages

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It hurts when you hit rock bottom and when you get this low there is little chance of bouncing back quickly.

Italy are now in a similar if not worse position to that after the tournament in 1974 when they arrived in Germany as World Cup runners-up and slinked home after the group stage.

Then of course there was the infamous tomato-throwing incident when the shame-faced players exited to North Korea in 1996, but it is doubtful anyone will waste lobbing any love apples this time around.

In fact, the general consensus was 'an accident waiting to happen' but even those who had predicted that the Azzurri would not escape the group stage could not have taken much pleasure from the ignominious manner in which the team undid the heroics of Berlin four years ago.

The zeroes of South Africa will only be remembered as the failures who could not even muster a decent result to finish above New Zealand – and the old adage that you should never go back will haunt Marcello Lippi for the rest of his life.

It was ‘in Marcello we trust’ when the legendary coach returned to take over the reins of the qualifying campaign.

However, without a win in 2010 and what seemed a personal animosity towards Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli the mask of invincibility was starting to slip on those handsome features long before the squad headed to the tournament.

Three group games and three different formations suggested that Lippi was making it up as he went along and at least he had the good grace to accept the blame for the fall from grace in what La Gazzetta dello Sport described as the 'Darkest Day'.

Is there now to be a new dawning for the national team as there was after ’74 when the likes of Paolo Rossi, Roberto Bettega and Antonio Cabrini came to the fore in Argentina?

On the face of it, the darkness has been closing in for some time and could be set to continue for the foreseeable future as Serie A club coaches continue to put collect strength ahead of individual talent.

Apart from Balotelli, supposedly the brightest young talent around; and we mean 'young' – not man-boys in their mid-20s – were all picked for this competition.

Domenico Criscito was the only player in his early 20s to see a significant game time but when things started to go off the rails he was first to be substituted, with the creaky Gianluca Zambrotta switching to left-back.

Leonardo Bonucci was never going to oust Fabio Cannavaro despite the fact that the captain’s failings had been evident all season long.

Lippi had high hopes for Claudio Marchisio but the Juventus midfielder was no Marco Tardelli – and after that it was a mixture of the old and mediocre to carry fading hopes of making the knock-out round.

It is, as they say, an end of an era - so at least there is something positive to come out of the whole sorry affair – but new coach Cesare Prandelli must make do with what is available on the domestic front.

There is little chance of getting much help from the top clubs and especially from Inter and AC Milan, who seemingly have no interest in cultivating local talent who can make the step up to the big time so it will be back to trawling the likes of Udinese, Fiorentina and the rest of the provinces for future internationals.

The knock-on effects of this World Cup debacle are set to be felt through the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifying maze where the likes of Northern Ireland, Estonia and Faroe Islands not to mention Serbia and Slovenia will be looking to cause a shock.

The Dark Ages have well and truly descended and we know that the Age of Enlightenment is a long way off when Cassano is once again being hailed as the country’s Renaissance Man.

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