In beach soccer, perhaps even more so than on grass, you can never take anything for granted. In the words of former Italian national coach and current Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni: "Don’t say cat until you’ve got it in the bag."
Unfortunately for Italy’s fans, who had streamed so enthusiastically into the Stadio del Mare in Ravenna to cheer on their heroes, this may be one proverb that the men in blue failed to heed. In the very least it may help to explain the hosts’ surprising quarter-final elimination at the hands of an inspired El Salvador side. The Central Americans, who had never reached the second stage of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup before, now face a semi-final date with Russia.
But while the Salvadorans pursue their dream, the Italians are waking up from a nightmare that will not be easy to forget. The bitterness of the defeat was clear from the home players’ reactions at the end of the match. When the final siren sounded some fell to their knees, others cried, while some sought shelter in the dressing room. Some even cried out in frustration at a result that few had seen coming, least of all the Azzurri aces themselves.
Yet according to Francesco Corosiniti, one of the few players who later found the strength to face the microphones, over-confidence was certainly not a factor in the defeat. "I can guarantee that we made a conscious effort not to underestimate El Salvador in any way,” explained the winger. “We knew that they could cause us problems."
As to why Italy failed to emulate their admirable performance against Switzerland, the wide-man ventured his own theory. "We were too on edge,” he said. “We didn’t manage to play our game and were affected too much by the occasion. The responsibility got to us."
A fightback mentality
Even so, the Italians had started the match in style, taking the lead three times, and had already shown against Switzerland and Iran that they were capable of fighting their way back into matches. Against the Iranians in particular, the home side spent long spells chasing the game before finally winning on penalties.
I think the team has repaid this wonderful public for the warmth that they have shown us.
In fact if anything, these trials not only toughened up Massimiliano Esposito’s men, but also took their toll physically. "Unfortunately this evening we were missing many players due to suspension and injuries,” explained the coach in the aftermath of the loss to the Salvadorans. “We also felt tired mentally. With [Michele] Leghissa out I had to play [Matteo] Marrucci for longer. The team moved well, but we just showed a bit of inexperience by losing possession each time we went ahead."
Without captain Leghissa and prolific pivot Giuseppe Soria, and with Feudi playing through an injury, the team lacked their customary compactness and cutting edge. They struggled to get to grips with El Salvador’s No11 Frank Velasquez who had a field day, netting four goals including the decisive extra-time strike that sealed the Italians’ elimination. The Cuscatleco point-man had already kept his side in contention earlier in the match, notably equalising after his opposite number Paolo Palmacci had scored an early opener.
If there was one man who carried the fight against the Salvadorans, it was none other than Palmacci himself. The driving force of the team, the 27-year-old fired his own-four goal salvo in what was arguably his finest game in the blue shirt. Although his efforts proved in vain, Massimiliano Esposito nevertheless made a point of thanking Palmacci and his team-mates, who were also treated to a long and generous round of applause at the end by the spectators. "We still had a great World Cup and I have to congratulate the lads because they did really well,” said Esposito. “I think the team has repaid this wonderful public for the warmth that they have shown us."
Now Esposito has the delicate task of rebuilding La Nazionale, perhaps adding a few new faces to the squad to build on its existing quality. In any event he must act quickly to ensure a rapid renaissance for Italian beach soccer, which, despite having one of the most competitive and developed leagues in the world, has also had to learn a hard lesson or two on the sand.