BERN, Switzerland – Fabio Cannavaro's importance to Italy was spelled out in graphic detail Monday night, and the Real Madrid defensive star was not even on the field.
Ruled out of Euro 2008 by an ankle injury, Cannavaro cut a sad figure on the Italian bench, powerless to prevent the Netherlands from delivering a crushing 3-0 victory at the Wankdorf Stadium.
It was not so much Cannavaro's defensive brilliance that was missed, as Holland's trio of attacking midfielders carved up an Italian backline that conceded only two goals in the seven games of its World Cup triumph two years ago. Instead, Italy desperately needed the leadership and talismanic presence of the 2006 World Player of the Year to limit the damage on a miserable night for Italian football.
When Italy conceded its controversial opening goal (apparently awarded due to a quirk in the offside rules), heads immediately dropped and a defeatist attitude infiltrated coach Roberto Donadoni's team. It was the sort of situation where Cannavaro would have stepped in, assessed his teammates and delivered an ear-bashing or a quiet word of encouragement.
His leadership may not have made much impact on the final score, but it's a fair bet Italy would not have gone down without a fight. Remarkably, the team that conquered the best nations on the planet in Germany looked rudderless and disorientated without its most senior player.
"You could see the first goal really affected them," Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder said of the Italians. "Football is emotional and you could see they felt it."
There were widespread mutterings among connoisseurs of Italian football that the Azzurri's unexpected victory in the World Cup papered over the cracks. Domestically, the game in Italy is experiencing turmoil with declining Serie A attendance after the recent match-fixing scandal and violent clashes between police and fans last season. With only one Italian club team (AS Roma) qualifying for the last eight of the Champions League, experts have been concerned by the drop-off in standard.
Italy's flaws were brutally exposed Monday. Both Andrea Barzagli and Marco Materazzi are capable defenders at the international level, but neither had the vision or the willpower to hold firm against an impressive Dutch attacking machine that constantly piled on the pressure.
With Cannavaro now 34 and approaching the end of his career, the signs are not good for Italy if it cannot find someone to step into his leadership role. Donadoni refused to name his captain against the Netherlands until the day of the game, even though goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was the obvious and most senior choice to be given the armband.
Italy's campaign is not over, thanks mainly to the uninspiring Group C opener between France and Romania that ended in a miserable 0-0 draw. But the signs are poor, with Luca Toni struggling to find his scoring touch and the midfield having been outplayed Monday.
A victory against Romania – on paper the weakest team in the Group of Death – is imperative if the Italians are to retain serious hopes of making major progress. Yet while the Romanians' ultra-defensive style is unpleasant to watch, it can be difficult to break down, as the French found out.
Only one game in and already the clock is ticking for the world champions. Can anyone answer the call of duty for Cannavaro?