ESPN’s Tommy Smyth, observing the rough & tumble Group F finale between Croatia and Australia ;

“There’s more grabbing and pulling of shirt tails…than there is in a department store during a sale.”

No one knows quite how to fashion the word-picture like our Tommy. I’m now cursed with the mental image of Smyth waiting for the doors to Filene’s Basement to open the day after Christmas, instead of being fixated on Darino Srna’s goal shortly after kickoff (above).

Gilberto just put one past Japan’s Kawaguchi Yoshikatsu to extend Brazil’s lead to 3-1.

UPDATE : Australia 1, Croatia 2. Socceroos keeper Zelko Kalac will need a new pair of underoos after failing to scoop up a poorly taken Niko Kovac shot from some 30 yards out. Total blooper reel stuff. If these scores stand up, Croatia will face Italy and Ronaldo can try to make a meal out of Ghana.

Whether winning Group E will inspire greater love for the Italian national team remains to be seen, but the Guardian’s Paolo Bandini writes there’s been no shortage of criticism in the run up to today’s 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic.

“I hope they go out quickly. They are arrogant, shameful and above all without balls – at least the kind of balls you need to win,” screamed a front-page editorial in the rightwing Northern League paper La Padania before Italy’s opener against Ghana. “Support the Africans,” agreed Communist publication Il Manifesto, while even mainstream broadsheet La Repubblica acknowledged many fans had either turned their backs on the national side or taken to actively supporting the opposition. Italian football’s struggles are widely acknowledged – attendances down to 21,700 and violent racism in the stands – and the roots of this disdain for the national side go back further than the current malaise.

Football has formed an integral part of the Italian psyche for decades, and success on the pitch has long been tied to the sense of national identity. Defeats are taken personally and the sense that Italy has been let down by its players has grown out of all proportion in recent years.

Italians demand and expect success of their players in a way that no other country does and this burden has weighed heavily on a generation of footballers who, since the Roberto Baggio-inspired USA 1994 runners-up, simply haven’t possessed the requisite talent for a serious World Cup challenge. Indeed, the country has never really recovered from the loss of Baggio himself – first Alessandro Del Piero and now Francesco Totti have been expected to fill his talismanic boots as the country’s creator-in-chief, a task they were always destined to fail.

With expectations at an all-time low, the win against Ghana met with surprising celebrations in Italy, and even the draw with USA has been received pragmatically. While they looked far from world-beaters against the States, their struggles revealed the naivety of an inexperienced starting set rather than the tired plodding and lack of ideas that characterised recent failings.