Berne, June 10: Euro 2008's "group of death" produced its first casualty on Monday -- and it wasn't Romania.
World champion Italy, the all-conquering Azzurri from the 2006 World Cup, the team that overcame soccer scandal at home and Zinedine Zidane's infamous head butt on Marco Materazzi in the final in Berlin, was trounced, 3-0, by the Netherlands. A highly controversial goal by Ruud van Nistelrooy, a superb volley by Wesley Sneijder on his 24th birthday, and an opportunistic header by Giovanni van Bronckhorst sent Italy crashing to its worst-ever European Championship defeat. The Italians had not been beaten by the Dutch in their last eight games, going 6-0-2 since losing to Holland in the 1978 World Cup semifinals in Argentina. But on Monday they were outplayed across the board.The victory sent thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans out onto the streets of Bern, Switzerland, to celebrate deep into the night. The loss sent Italy Coach Roberto Donadoni back to the drawing board to figure out how to survive in Group C, which also includes France and Romania, who tied, 0-0, in Monday's earlier game in Zurich.
"It has just been one of those nights; now we must look forward," Donadoni said. "It's hard, but you must be optimistic. There are other games."
Two goals in a six-minute span in the first half undid the Italians.
The first came when Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon leapt to punch away the ball on a play that saw teammate and defender Christian Panucci fall out of bounds. Before Panucci could recover, Sneijder had fired a shot toward the net that Van Nistelrooy, clearly ahead of any defender, deflected past Buffon.
The Italians claimed -- loudly -- that Van Nistelrooy was offside, but Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt ignored their protests. Panucci, even though he was off the field of play, apparently had kept Nistelrooy onside. The goal stood.
"A goal is a goal and it is impossible to change the decision," Donadoni said. "We accept it."
Less than six minutes after Van Nistelrooy's goal -- which will continue to be debated -- Sneijder scored another, hitting Dirk Kuyt's cross on the volley and squeezing his shot between Buffon and the post.
That set Dutch fans in the Stade de Suisse into raptures, and Van Bronckhorst's headed goal 11 minutes from the end was merely icing.
"I cannot name one player who played poorly," said Dutch Coach Marco van Basten.