JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 24: Robert Vittek of Slovakia celebrates victory with his national flag after knocking Italy out of the competition during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group F match between Slovakia and Italy at Ellis Park Stadium on June 24, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
With all the excitement in the U.S. over yesterday's last minute goal, it would be easy to sit back and forget about the World Cup until Saturday, when the squad takes on Ghana. And while people in the states have every right to feel proud of their nation and its dramatic goalscoring in the tournament, it would be a disservice for soccer as a sport for the country to ignore the rest of the games.
Because while this cup may have started out as a snoozefest, showcasing cautious play and boring draws, the third matches of the group stages have given us nearly non-stop drama. Today's match between Slovakia and Italy is a perfect example, the most thrilling match played to date.
As one who has been crowing about the virtues of Slovakia for the past couple months, I didn't watch this game as a passive observer. Rather, my heart started the game in my throat, and barely moved for the rest of the match. With just a few minutes played, Italy looked nice and bright, while Marek Hamsik missed an easy shot inside the box. Quickly thereafter, the Slovakian midfield started playing all kinds of headgames with Italy, and it looked as though they were going to be the dominant side. On the literal edge of my seat, I jumped off the couch and into the cat's water bowl when Juraj Kucka took advantage of a misplay by Daniele de Rossi and sent the ball straight to Robert Vittek, who drove it into the net.
My foot dripping, my heart easing slowly back toward my chest, I sank back on to the couch to enjoy a much calmer twenty minutes of football. Slovakia continued to confound Italy, who struggled to even keep an eye on the ball, and Kucka barely missed the post just before halftime. Secure in my belief that Slovakia had this in the bag, I made egg on toast and felt not even a knot in my tummy.
But after the half, I noticed that a slightly different Italy took to the pitch. If I were John Harkes, I might say that they found their confidence, or were suddenly passionate about playing the game. But instead I'll attribute it to Fabio Quagliarella, the Napoli player who quickly made his presence felt on the pitch. Just ten minutes later, Lippi put in Italy's star playmaker, Andrea Pirlo, which sent my heart back to my throat. But Hamsik easily dealt with Andrea, simply taking the ball away from him.
With 30 minutes to go, I could barely sit down. Italy were suddenly able to string together a few passes. Christian Maggio, another half-time sub, was able to contain the Slovakian players intent on going forward. But at 73 minutes, Vittek scored again, and with his brace the world was utterly convinced that defenders Italy were out of the tourney.
While still on the high, Italy got themselves into the box and fired in a shot that will be debated for years, I'm sure. Skrtel managed to get in the way, but some doubt exists as to whether the ball crossed the line. I refuse to believe the entire ball went over, but I confess I'm biased toward the repre. Even if it didn't, Slovakia still showed evidence of being rattled, and their previously excellent defensive work broke down enough to allow Quagliarella to fire into the net. Jan Mucha managed to push it wide but Di Natale was right there to poke it in. 2-1 to Slovakia and my heart was all the way in my ears.
It seemed to be only seconds later, or possibly an hour, when Quagliarella once again takes a shot. This one goes in and I nearly burst into tears. Oh little repre, you got so far, held off Italy so long, only for it to come to THAT'S A FLAG! The linesman is holding up a flag and Slovakia are saved by another interesting decision. Fabio was just barely, barely offsides, the linesman caught it and the score stayed as is.
Another eternity later, the world was once again convinced that Slovakia had done the unthinkable, when Kamil Kopunek, subbed into the game just a minute earlier, raced past the Italian defense and stuck the ball in. 3-1 Slovakia and surely the Italians were going home.
Howard Webb, however, had other ideas, and added 4 minutes of stoppage time, possibly due to the handbags that occurred in the net after Itay's goal. And sure enough, halfway through that time Quagliarella once again puts the ball into the net and gives Italy hope.
No longer was sitting an option. I was pacing, I was typing in all caps with quite a few curse words thrown in, I was utterly convinced that the dramatic Italians were going to snatch this one away from my little Slovakians, who had their chance to move on to the round of 16 in their very first World Cup. First one! But they put up a good fight, rolling on the ground, taking ages with a substitution, doing all those things that we hate opposing teams for but when it's done against the diving ridiculousness of Italy we're willing to turn a blind eye.
Just a few seconds remaining and the Italians somehow have a throw in. Giorgio Chiellini morphs into the Italian version of Rory DeLap, sending the throw to the feet of Pepe...who somehow manages to put the shot wide! The Slovakians did it! They defeated the defending World Cup champions, leaving the Azzurri at the bottom of the group with nowhere to go but the airport. And I, a temporary Slovakian, woke up two dogs, one cat, and one snoring uncle with my cries of glee, and then watched the repre celebrate with a few tears in my eyes.