World Cup: Arrivederci Italy, Au Revoir France

Italy, which won the World Cup four years ago, suffered a humiliating loss to Slovakia Thursday. Slovakia had been ranked 34th. The French team has returned home in disgrace. That team, which was the previous runner-up, was beset by infighting.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There are always upsets at the World Cup, but few expected the big surprises we've seen this week in South Africa. Both the winner and the runner-up from the previous World Cup failed to advance to the second round. France, the runner-up in 2006, was eliminated on Tuesday. And last night defending champion Italy lost to Slovakia. The losses were deeply embarrassing to both Italy and France. Anita Elash reports from Paris.

ANITA ELASH: Yesterday's Italy-Slovakia match was one of the best in this World Cup so far, but it wasn't good enough for the Italians.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: The whistle blows. And it's the end for Italy. The defending champions are out of the World Cup.

ELASH: The match was covered on ESPN. The Italians lost 3-2 and finished last in their group.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: They will go home to some horrendous headlines in Italy.

ELASH: The coach, Marcello Lippi, apologized to fans.

Mr. MARCELLO LIPPI (Italian Coach): (Through translator) I take all responsibility for what happened, because if a team shows up at such an important game like tonight's game with terror in their head and heart and in their legs, and if the team is unable to express their abilities, it means the coach didn't train the team as he should have done psychologically, technically or tactically.

ELASH: The Italian team's exit was a lot more dignified than the French squad's farewell. They refused to practice after one of their teammates was sent home for yelling obscenities at the coach. Then they lost to South Africa, one of the lowest ranking teams at the Cup. Le Bleu are now considered a national disgrace and their loss has become an affair of state. France's sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, condemned her country's team in the National Assembly.

Ms. ROSELYNE BACHELOT (French Sports Minister): (Through translator) I have no choice but to say it was a disaster. We have a team of immature spoiled brats and a confused coach who has no authority. What I can't forgive is that they've shattered the dreams of millions of children.

ELASH: Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy is involved. He canceled a meeting with NGOs preparing for the G20 summit yesterday to make way for a t�te-�-t�te with France striker Thierry Henry at the L'Elysee palace.

The French team snuck back into the country. They landed at a small airport outside Paris, all the better to shield themselves from journalists and the handful of supporters, or possibly hecklers who came to catch a glimpse.

Their former fans, like this high school student in central Paris, descended into a dark mood.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) We have all these problems with the economic crisis, we're buying less, we're going out less. Sports is supposed to cheer you up, and now we're not even in the second round. For most French people this is unacceptable. Now I'm really depressed.

ELASH: Sarkozy has promised that those responsible for the French team's loss will learn the lessons of this disaster. That's cold comfort for millions of disappointed and humiliated fans.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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