The city of Ijebu-Ode turned out to be a graveyard for two of the sides expected to push for honours at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. The scene of Argentina's shock exit to the heroic Colombians in the Round of 16, the southern metropolis also provided the setting for Italy's farewell from the tournament on Sunday.
The Azzurrini produced a typically battling display against a powerful Switzerland side, but failed to make the most of their opportunities on a day when good fortune deserted them. Yet, as he tells FIFA.com, Italy coach Pasquale Salerno has been pleased with his side's efforts over the last two weeks. "It might sound strange, but I'm happy with everything the team has done," says Salerno in the wake of a fine but luckless performance against the all-conquering Swiss. "Our objective here is to prepare the players for the future, and if you look at the games we've played in this campaign, I think you can definitely say we're on the right track."
The Italians certainly have nothing to be ashamed about in going out to their near neighbours, who have surprised everyone on what is their tournament debut by knocking out two other title contenders in Brazil and Germany. "Switzerland are a very strong team and they have a superb coach in Dany Ryser, who is a friend of mine and who I genuinely hope he can take his team even further in the competition," says the magnanimous Salerno before acknowledging the importance of Marco Fossati's second-half penalty miss, perhaps the turning point of the evening.
"We played a great game today and we could have scored several goals. We fell away after missing the penalty, though. If we'd scored then, it could have been a different story. But it's gone now and the boys have gained some invaluable experience at this World Cup."
What might have been
One of the Italians' leading performers was Federico Carraro. The Fiorentina midfielder pulled his side level against the Swiss with a superb free-kick, which only served to heighten his sense of disappointment at their departure from the tournament. "Losing really hurts," he tells FIFA.com, "and it really overshadows my performance."
Carraro's dejection is understandable. He had perhaps done more than anyone to stem the Swiss tide, distributing the ball with panache, creating his side's best chances and capping his display with that stunning set-piece strike. The No20 could have added a second goal from the spot but instead allowed team-mate Fossati to take the kick that could well have taken the tie into extra-time. "The fact is I wanted to take it but Marco said he felt confident and it seemed sensible to let him go ahead," he explains. "But we shouldn't be blaming him for getting knocked out. After all, I could have missed it too."
Like his coach, however, the Azzurrini star is keen to focus on the positive aspects of their stay in Nigeria. "We learned a lot, especially about the demands of playing in a tournament like this. It's very different to what you experience in the league back home. You can't afford to make mistakes here or lose concentration because you pay for it. Despite that we played pretty well and I've got a lot of faith in this team for the future."
That future involves a step-up to the national U-20 and U-21 sides, a promotion that Carraro and several of his team-mates in Nigeria can be expected to make, as coach Salerno confirms. "One of the many things that football and sport can teach you is that hard work brings results. I'm absolutely convinced this group will have a lot of success in the future, just as long as they keep working as hard as they have been doing in the last few weeks."