BRASILIA (Reuters) - Italy's World Cup campaign ended in sadly familiar style on Wednesday with bickering and recriminations against the referee, yet it was a general lack of quality, especially in attack, which ultimately caused their downfall.
Coach Cesare Prandelli offered some frank criticism on the state of Italian football as he announced his resignation immediately after the 1-0 defeat against Uruguay, which condemned the four-times champions to a second successive group stage elimination.
Stalwarts Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi also admitted that Italy were simply not good enough and both made references to players not pulling their weight, which the media interpreted as being aimed at maverick striker Mario Balotelli.
"There have been elements which influenced the result such as the heat and the negative refereeing, but we must not resort to (blaming) these," De Rossi told Italian media after the game in steamy Natal.
“We need real men, not Panini stickers or characters. These are of no use to the national team.”
That comment seemed to be a reference to Balotelli who filled a Panini album with stickers of himself after scoring in the 2-1 win over England in Italy's opening game and posted a photograph of it on his Facebook page.
After beating England, Italy suffered 1-0 defeats to Costa Rica and Uruguay and their tally of two goals was their lowest since 1966 when they were eliminated by North Korea in a national humiliation.
"It's a day of failure," said goalkeeper Buffon. "We started well, maybe expectations were raised too high after the first win. But we have hit a sad reality, a team that has not scored a goal in the last two games and created very little and deserved to go out.
"The referee certainly didn't help us but we can't always blame the referee. On the pitch, you see who people really are and aren't."
Although Prandelli was angry at the referee for sending off Claudio Marchisio in the second half, he seemed more upset about a lack of support back home.
"We are the only national team who leaves for the World Cup without the backing of the fans, when we left we were almost ashamed to be going to the World Cup," he said.
"We have a problem in terms of quality. We knew we would have difficulties against certain teams, although we didn't have them against England.
"Uruguay moved the ball around at an incredible pace, Our football doesn't produce certain types of players, and that is something we should reflect on. Balotelli is part of a project that failed and I take responsibility for that."
Apart from his goal against England, Balotelli offered little threat while Antonio Cassano, included at the last minute after an impressive season with Parma, was way off the pace.
Prandelli may have regretted not selecting Fiorentina's Giuseppe Rossi, arguably Italy's sharpest and most prolific striker, after he was judged to have not recovered sufficiently from knee surgery.
Amid the shock of Prandelli's resignation and the controversy over the incident in which Uruguay forward Luis Suarez bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, it was almost forgotten that the game marked the end of Andrea Pirlo's international career.
HOT AND BOTHERED
Although Italy avoided making a fuss over the conditions, it was clear they suffered in the heat and had possibly the worst draw of any of the 32 teams in that sense.
They face England in the dripping heat and humidity of Manaus, at the heart of the Amazon rain forest, followed by midday kickoffs in tropical Recife and then Natal.
Prandelli, who had extended his contract until 2016 on the eve of the World Cup, said he would not reconsider his decision to resign, although the Italian federation did not comment on whether they would accept it.
The coach, who took over after the 2010 World Cup, has tried to bring dignity to a team often associated with the darker side of the game, and has dropped players for misbehaving in club games.
One of the game's gentlemen and with an admirable ability to keep things in perspective, he had worked hard to rebuild Italy's credibility over four years and his departure leaves Italian football in an even bigger mess than it was before.
(Reporting By Brian Homewood; editing by Justin Palmer)