Last night England’s World Cup nightmare came true in the Brazilian jungle.
Officials of English soccer’s governing body described the match with Italy in the Amazon capital Manaus in its opening World Cup game as the worst possible scenario. Although the team challenged Italy, its players suffered in the stifling conditions and may have to secure a victory in the next game to remain in the competition.
Italy, a four-time World Cup champion, won 2-1 at the Arena da Amazonia, where the temperature topped 30 degrees Celsius (87.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Several English players suffered cramps in the closing stages as they tried to equalize after Mario Balotelli’s second-half header gave Italy the lead.
“Quite a few of our players cramped up -- that’s something we need to look into,” England coach Roy Hodgson told reporters after the game in which Claudio Marchisio for Italy and Daniel Sturridge traded goals in the space of two minutes midway through the first half. “The heat and humidity obviously takes its toll but towards end of game it was still us that was looking to take the game to Italy.”
England’s soccer federation head Greg Dyke made a cut throat gesture during December’s draw when England was paired with Italy, saying afterwards it presented the most difficult start because of the opposition and the location.
Next for England
After Costa Rica’s 3-1 upset of Uruguay in Group D’s early game, the challenge is even harder with England probably needing to win both its remaining pool games to be assured of qualification, according to Hodgson. England meets Uruguay in Sao Paulo on June 19, while Italy plays Costa Rica in Recife a day later.
“We lift our heads now and prepare for the next two games,” he said. “If we reproduce that performance twice more there’s very chance we can get through.”
England, which had more traveling supporters than Italy, was jeered by the Brazilians in the stadium, which had pockets of empty seats even though organizers said it was sold out months ago.
The game settled into a pattern similar to their quarterfinal meeting at the 2012 European Championship, with Italy dominating possession early and England looking to strike on the counterattack.
Italy midfield trio Andrea Pirlo, Marco Verratti and Daniele de Rossi circulated possession neatly without creating a clear chance early on. England threatened through its speedy forwards Danny Welbeck and 19-year-old Raheem Sterling, playing in his first competitive match for the national team.
Sterling, who had a breakout season with Liverpool, had some fans celebrating inside five minutes when his shot from distance rippled the outside of the net.
Italy opened the scoring when Pirlo, who by halftime had made almost half as many passes as England’s entire team, allowed a ball from Verratti to run through to Marchisio who took a touch before slamming the ball past goalkeeper Joe Hart.
“It was important to start with a victory, especially on a day in which playing football was really difficult,” Marchisio said. “At times it felt like having hallucinations due to the heat. But this squad showed great character and held up in the final minutes.”
England’s response was immediate. Sterling pierced Italy’s defense to set Wayne Rooney free down the left and his pass fell perfectly for Sturridge to score with his right foot. England’s physiotherapist Gary Lewin dislocated his ankle during celebrations on the bench and was stretchered off. Hodgson said Lewin is heading back to the U.K.
Italy almost snatched the lead before halftime when Balotelli had a shot cleared off the goalline and Antonio Candreva struck the post.
Those two players combined to give Italy the lead in the 50th minute. Balotelli outjumped Gary Cahill to connect with Candreva’s deep cross and head past Hart.
Both teams used up their alloted substitutions as players tired towards the closing stages. Italy coach Prandelli branded the game as one of the World Cup’s greatest ever though said it was “absurd” not to enforce fixed drinks breaks. Under FIFA regulations specific conditions need to be met for the referee to stop the game to allow stoppages for heat.
“The referee was good enough to interrupt every now and again,” Prandelli said. “If we want entertainment we have to give the players the opportunity to perform.”
FIFA said the conditions weren’t bad enough for the referee to enforce water breaks, although he did give players the chance to re-hydrate.
Pirlo, the oldest player on the field at 35, remained on the field throughout. His swerving free-kick in stoppage time left Hart rooted to his line before bouncing off the crossbar.
The Juventus midfielder played on Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning team.
“Pirlo is a player who can perform in quality whatever the areas of the pitch he plays,” Prandelli said. “He has such experience he could play in any part of the pitch with equal quality.”
Prandelli praised England for the way the team has evolved since the meeting at the European Championships, where the most common passing combination featured goalkeeper Hart’s long kicks upfield to Andy Carroll, a tall physical striker not at the World Cup.
“England until just a few years ago played long balls and headers, now they play good football,” Prandelli said. “They really have one of the strongest attacks in the World Cup. That’s why I’m so satisfied, because we played against a great team.”
(An earlier version of this story was changed to correct the number of titles Italy has won.)
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