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Italy goes home after 3-2 loss to Slovakia

Slovakia's Robert Vittek, center, celebrates after scoring past Italy goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, on the ground in the background, during the World Cup group F soccer match between Slovakia and Italy at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, June 24, 2010. Slovakia's Robert Vittek, center, celebrates after scoring past Italy goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, on the ground in the background, during the World Cup group F soccer match between Slovakia and Italy at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, June 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
By Andrew Dampf
AP Sports Writer / June 24, 2010

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JOHANNESBURG—The stunned looks and the tears told the story -- for both teams.

For defending champion Italy, the ignominy of being sent out of the World Cup in the first round sank in immediately.

"Tonight," midfielder Gennaro Gattuso said, "we touched rock bottom."

For Slovakia, which beat the Azzurri 3-2 Thursday to advance, well, the celebrating might not stop before Monday's second-round game.

"We've shown shown that we're not here for a holiday," said Slovakia forward Erik Jendrisek.

The party ended in stunning fashion for four-time champion Italy, which finished last in an opening-round group for the first time.

"I take full responsibility," said coach Marcello Lippi, who led the Azzurri to the 2006 championship. "If the squad went out with fear in their legs and hearts it means the coach didn't prepare the match well tactically or psychologically."

For the third consecutive game, the Azzurri allowed an early goal and this time they never recovered.

Robert Vittek put Slovakia ahead in the 25th minute, taking advantage of an errant pass from midfielder Daniele De Rossi. Vittek doubled the lead from close range in the 73rd following a corner kick.

Antonio Di Natale scored for Italy in the 81st, but Kamil Kopunek ended Italy's chances eight minutes later, even though Fabio Quagliarella scored in injury time for Italy.

"We didn't win a game and it's everyone's fault," playmaker Andrea Pirlo said. "We're a team and we've got to assume responsibility all together."

It was Italy's first loss at the World Cup since allowing a golden goal to South Korea in the second round in 2002. And it marked the end of an era for Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro and Gattuso, who already announced their retirement from the national team after the tournament. Lippi is also moving on, with Cesare Prandelli already chosen as his successor.

"We were a disappointment and everyone saw it," regular goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said. "The difference between 2006 and 2010 is that there are no longer enough players like (Francesco) Totti and Alessandro (Del Piero). He (Prandelli) will have to start a new cycle and I hope he's got his ideas in order, because the current situation of Italian football isn't great."

Italy's squad featured nine players 30 or over and Prandelli will be charged with a major overhaul. Italy hasn't won since beating Sweden 1-0 in a friendly in November, drawing five times and losing twice.

"It's not a very good moment for Italian football, but the level of the Italian game isn't what you saw tonight," Lippi said.

Never have the previous World Cup finalists both failed to advance in the next tournament when both qualified. France, which lost to Italy on penalty kicks for the 2006 title, went out earlier this week in Group A.

Slovakia plays next in Durban against the Netherlands, which won Group E. Many of the Slovak players were in tears at the end of the match, and the reserves gathered in a circle, jumping up and down in celebration. It is the first World Cup for Slovakia as an independent nation.

"That's unbelievable," Slovak goalkeeper Jan Mucha said. "I never played a match like this one."

Added coach Vladimir Weiss: "That's my message to all fans at home: enjoy football. Let's celebrate ... a present to all our fans at home."

Slovakia finished with a win, a draw and a loss for four points. Italy had two draws and Thursday's bitter defeat.

Italy also allowed early goals in its 1-1 draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and the Azzurri attack struggled in all three games -- save for the final 10 minutes against Slovakia, when the Italians got desperate.

Vittek's opening goal came on a low shot just beyond the reach of goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, who again replaced the injured Buffon. He then went around Giorgio Chiellini from close range following a corner kick for his second goal.

Di Natale slid in a rebound from Quagliarella's shot and, with four forwards on, Quagliarella nearly equalized in the 85th, but was ruled offside by the smallest of margins.

Slovakia restored its two-goal lead in the 89th when substitute Kopunek lifted a bouncing ball over Marchetti.

Quagliarella finally found the target in the second minute of added time with a delicate lob.

Still, for 80 minutes Italy's forwards were unable to find the net, and no forward scored in open play during the Azzurri's opening two matches.

Midfielder Pirlo came on in the 56th minute for his first action since injuring his left calf in a friendly against Mexico three weeks ago. The crafty playmaker gave Italy's sagging attack a much-needed boost, but it was not enough.

The early exit left the soccer-crazed nation in shock and anger.

The online editions of Corriere della Sera, the country's largest newspaper, said "Azzurri, Farewell to the World Cup." Repubblica wrote that "it's worse than with Korea," recalling the shocking exit at the hands of North Korea in 1966.

Fans who gathered in a Rome park to watch the match on giant screens began leaving as Slovakia's goals piled up.

Reaction, naturally, was just the opposite in Bratislava.

"A fantasy," read the headline of the Internet version of Pravda, a major Slovak newspaper.

"The footballers shocked Italy," another daily, Sme, said.

Fans who were watching the match in front of a giant screen in downtown Bratislava screamed in joy at the final whistle.

"It was not a miracle, but reality on the pitch in Johannesburg," Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic said in a text message sent to The Associated Press through his spokesman. "Our players were doing all they could, played fantastic and deserved to win. I'm absolutely delighted and so is the entire Slovakia."

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