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Friday, 21 June, 2002, 23:55 GMT 00:55 UK
Rough justice?
Italy playmaker Francesco Totti
Totti was harshly sent off against South Korea

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Grey rain pats down onto the deserted streets outside Sendai railway station.

At six thirty the Shinkansen 'bullet' train awaits to whisk me down to Tokyo, Narita airport and back to Milano.

As everyone else slinks out of Seoul I find myself going in the opposite direction.

Ever the optimist, banking on the best forward line in world football, the Sendai-Seoul return flight had seemed a reasonable bet after the Azzurri promised to return to their first phase base if they reached the final.

Although recriminations ring in the air, such is the sense of outrage felt back home in 'il bel paese' at the atrocious refereeing against Korea that the players are welcomed at Milan's Malpensa airport as heroes.

Italy players on their return home
Italy players were given a heroes' welcome

They return as hard-done-by victims of what a cheated sporting public believe was the commerical imperative of keeping the last remaining hosts in the competition.

Italian footballing culture rarely simply admits defeat, seeking instead the 'caproespiatorio' - scapegoat.

But watching from row three as Totti was red-carded, Del Piero elbowed in the face, Zambrotta and Coco bloodied with impunity, and Tomassi ruled offside amid a myriad of other doubtful calls, it's difficult this time to completely dismiss the 'real politick' of the conspiracy theorists.

Then again it would have helped if Bobo Vieri had slid home that sitter just as he had done for Inter all last season.

Surely the funniest sight of that traumatic end to Italy's traumatic tournament was Francesco Coco meekly obeying a linesman to tuck in his shirt at a throw-in.

Italy striker Christian Vieri
Vieri's profligacy cost Italy dear

At Euro 2000 they were just 46 seconds from victory.

Here there was two and a half minutes to go when Panucci, the elegant Cary Grant of the side, so uncharacteristically fumbled, slipped and fell to allow an equaliser.

Cruel, unjust, football was ever thus, as Shakespeare would no doubt have said if he'd been a 'tifoso'.

Conspiracy theorists apart, five goals disallowed in just four games is a bit difficult to explain within football's normal margins of error.

But then if you do manage only one win in four, over the mighty Ecuador, and the best forward line manages just five goals, perhaps the bloated domestic game should own up to asking too much of its star exponents.

Back at Sendai station, a giant Del Piero poster has him still biting into a pair of boots.

"Till the next time then Ale?" Arrivederci, or as they say so charmingly in these parts, sayonara.


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Fifa spokesman Keith Cooper
"Cooperation with the Italian team was very difficult"
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MEXICO 3 +2 7
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ECUADOR 3 -2 3

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