Changing of the Guard? European Soccer Titans Faltering at World Cup

By Michael Preston
|  Monday, Jun 21, 2010  |  Updated 5:02 AM PDT
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NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 20: Vincenzo Iaquinta of Italy is tackled by Tommy Smith of New Zealand during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group F match between Italy and New Zealand at the Mbombela Stadium on June 20, 2010 in Nelspruit, South Africa. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

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These are not your father's European soccer powers.

As the final games in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup get underway this week, the national teams of England, France and Italy - a group that includes two of the last three World Cup champions - are in utter disarray, with each facing win or go home scenarios, much to the dismay of their passionate fan bases.

ESPN reported that the French side was nearly in open revolt against its manager, Raymond Domnech, after he threw star striker Nicolas Anelka off the team for criticizing coaching decisions. The players refused to practice on Sunday after the team captain and fitness coach got into a heated argument. Les Blues have looked lackluster through two games so far, losing 2-0 to Mexico and getting a 0-0 draw against Uruguay. They play host nation South Africa Tuesday and would need to win and ring up several goals to advance.

2006 champion Italy is coming off a stunning 1-1 tie against New Zeland, the world's 78th ranked team. The Azzurri needed a penalty kick to draw even with a nation that has never won a match in the world's biggest sporting event. The team has struggled offensively and lost star goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to an injury in their first match.

“We’re just sorry we didn’t win a match we could have,” Italy Coach Marcello Lippi said. “If we didn’t win against New Zealand, it’s our fault. Once again, the opponent scored on their first chance. We were able to control the game after that, but this was a match we should have won.”

England's team met with boos from their fans as they walked off the pitch after drawing with Algeria on Friday. Adding insult to injury, London's Daily Telegraph reported that an irate fan made his way into the locker room following the match and proceeded to berate the players before being escorted out by FIFA officials.

Through two games, the English, led by one of the most dynamic strikers in the sport in the person of Wayne Rooney, have managed only two goals and stand to become the first national team to go out in the group stage since 1958. And, as with the French, there have been rumors of internal dissent. CNNSI reported that a player and management meeting was scheduled to take place on Sunday evening to ease tensions.

"The meeting tonight is to watch the whole game to see where we went wrong, which is probably the whole 93 minutes actually," John Terry, one of England's top defenders, told reporters. "As a group of players, we owe it to ourselves and to the country back home."

There don't appear to be any easy explanations as to why these teams have faltered whereas other European nations - namely Germany and the Netherlands - have performed well, even though they, along with tournament favorite Spain, have been shaky at points.

England may merely be cursed with bad luck and a better than expected set of opponents; goalkeeper Robert Green's shocking misplay of an easy stop against the U.S. lead to the tying goal in a match that saw the boys in Red, White and Blue supercharged for one of their biggest matches ever and Slovenia has performed well above expectations. But the answers are less clear for France and Italy.

In a World Cup that's already seen its fair share of upsets, it's certainly possible that all three teams could remain standing at the end of this round. But that would require their level of play to equal their considerable reputations, which have taken a beating thus far.

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