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Italy Latest Upset Victim

Group G: Croatia's 2-1 victory is marred by two questionable calls. Italy's Vieri blames loss on 'village referees.'

June 09, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SENDAI, Japan — A funny thing happened to France, Portugal, Argentina and Italy on the way to the World Cup semifinals.

All of them, consensus favorites to contend for the title, have already been defeated--and the first round has six days to go.

A day after Argentina lost to England, Italy fell victim to the upset wave sweeping across Japan and South Korea, losing to Croatia in controversial fashion, 2-1, Saturday at Ibaraki.

The Italians had two goals disallowed--a header by Christian Vieri that was ruled offside and a slow roller by Filippo Inzaghi that was nullified by a linesman's claim that Inzaghi had freed himself by pulling on a defender's shirt.

That left the Italians in a dour mood, with Vieri grousing that the officials "weren't division one or even division two referees. They were village referees."

But the fact remains that Italy surrendered two goals and was generally outplayed by a Croatia outfit that looked better suited for a Zagreb over-30 rec league during its 1-0 loss to Mexico on Monday.

Croatia Coach Mirko Jozic's response to the Mexican debacle was to bench two of the team's aging cornerstones, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki. By opting for younger legs over bigger names, Jozic injected new life into the Croatian attack--and Italy seemed unprepared for it.

Vieri gave Italy a temporary lead by heading in a cross from Cristiano Doni in the 55th minute. The goal was Vieri's third of the tournament and his eighth in seven World Cup appearances.

Croatia countered with two goals in four minutes--Ivica Olic from short range in the 73rd minute, Milan Rapaic banging a volley off Italy defender Marco Materazzi into the net in the 76th.

But Italy appeared unfairly denied a draw when Vieri's 50th-minute header was disallowed. Replays showed Vieri onside as he began his run for Materazzi's long arching feed.

Inzaghi's nullified goal was more questionable. The Italian forward did have a handful of a Croatian defender's jersey as he made his break for the ball and the net.

"I do not understand why our equalizer was disallowed," Italy Coach Giovanni Trapattoni said.

"It was an intense game.... These things happen, and the important thing is not to get demoralized. I don't want to get into [the] judging. But I thought that one of the goals--or even both goals--that were disallowed were OK. I think a draw would have been a fair result."

Croatia's victory left three teams tied atop Group G at three points apiece. Mexico can break the deadlock with a victory or a tie against Ecuador in a game that began Saturday at 11:30 p.m. Pacific time.

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