"AWRIGHT! D-DAY!" The American girl, draped in the stars and stripes and wearing a cowboy hat and Landon Donovan No 10 shirt, emerged in fine voice out of the lift doors into the lobby of her hotel yesterday morning, to be greeted by a chorus of "USA, USA" and a round of high fives from her little band of fellow travellers.
The Heidelberg branch of the US supporters club was hitting the autobahn for Nuremberg and a crucial Group E game against Ghana. But not before there was a slight Spinal Tap-type hitch as, amid much gung-ho cheering and loud banter, they went out the wrong exit and then had to re-enter the lobby a little sheepishly before finally finding the right door.
Meanwhile, your roving correspondent was bent on similar World Cup business but at a different destination, waiting for the bus that would take me to Frankfurt airport and a flight to Hamburg where Italy and the Czech Republic would meet in another vital Group E game.
The American girl wasn’t wrong – this, to be sure, was a date with destiny in what had turned out to be the World Cup’s Group Of Life. The supporters of all four competing nations would have woken up in various cities in Germany yesterday morning with dreams of further glory in their minds.
But, by afternoon’s end, only two would survive the cull. And now we know: Italy and Ghana are through to the last 16, and the Czech Republic and the USA are going home.
In Hamburg, for the first 20 minutes, it was the impressive Czechs who made all the running, Pavel Nedved feeding Milan Baros with a splendid through ball early on and then testing Gianluigi Buffon himself with a brace of powerful strikes.
Italy’s nervous start looked like it wouldn’t be helped when the veteran Alessandro Nesta was forced off after just 16 minutes but his replacement, the towering Marco Materazzi, was set to have a major impact on the game.
Known in Italy as the Luigi Riva of defenders for his prolific goal-scoring, the six-foot-five inch Inter player provided a skyscraping landmark on the pitch to compensate for the absence of Jan Koller.
And Materazzi showed what the big striker can do, he could do just as well when, 10 minutes after coming on, his towering header from a Francesco Totti corner gave Italy the lead. But the lively Czechs were still very much in the game until hit by a self-destructive blow almost on the stroke of half-time, when Jan Polak pole-axed Totti in the middle of the park, presenting the referee with no alternative but to brandish a second yellow card. A one goal lead and a numerical advantage? This is the sort of scenario Italian football was made to exploit.
Meanwhile, via text updates from colleagues and visual confirmation on the monitors in the stadium press box in Hamburg, we were able to keep up with proceedings in Nuremberg where, also on the stroke of half-time, a Stephen Appiah penalty had Ghana in the driving seat against the US.
And that’s the way it still was in the two venues at close of play. In Hamburg, the Czechs tried mightily to claw their way back – Buffon again at full stretch to deny Nedved with one outstanding save – but in pushing forward in a desperate attempt to rescue their World Cup, it was always likely that they would allow the Italians to land a knock-out blow on the break. And when it came, it was a real sucker punch, substitute Filippo Inzahgi being allowed to run virtually half the length of the pitch unchallenged before calmly rounding Petr Cech and rolling the ball into the empty net.
And it may have been more than just the end of this World Cup for the Czechs which we witnessed in Hamburg yesterday. Afterwards, veteran manager Karel Bruckner declined to discuss his future, leaving open the possibility that he won’t be around to go head to head with Steve Staunton in the European Championships. And as Pavel Nedved departed the pitch, stripped to the waste and with an Italian shirt tucked into his shorts, there was a sense that the embraces he shared with nearly the whole Italian team were about more than just commiserations from old friends in Serie A.
Speaking of embraces, Italian boss Marcello Lippi had to make light of an incident just after Italy’s second goal when, in the midst of the touchline celebrations, Gennaro Gattuso appeared to give his manager a deliberate shove. Excitable Italian journos suspected the player had even tried to hit him, but Lippi insisted that was just the way Gattuso showed manly affection.
Meanwhile, the live feed from Nuremberg was conveying wonderful scenes of the players and fans of Ghana celebrating their historic qualification for the second round.
On a day when the Group of Life became the Group of Sudden Death, it was Italy and Ghana who lived to fight another day.
As for my American friends in Heidelberg, maybe they never did find their way out of the hotel, and are just now passing through the basement kitchen for the umpteenth time, still high fiving and shouting ‘Hello Nuremberg’.
It might be just as well. In the World Cup, it’s never easy to say goodbye.
CZECH REPUBLIC: Cech, Grygera, Kovac (Heinz 78), Rozehnal, Jankulovski, Plasil, Polak, Nedved, Poborsky (Stajner 46), Rosicky, Baros (Jarolim 64).
Subs Not Used: Blazek, Galasek, Jiranek, Kinsky, Koller, Mares, Sionko.
ITALY: Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Nesta (Materazzi 17), Grosso, Camoranesi (Barone 73), Pirlo, Perrotta, Gattuso, Totti, Gilardino (Inzaghi 60).
Subs Not Used: Amelia, Barzagli, Del Piero, Iaquinta, Oddo, Peruzzi, Toni, Zaccardo.
Referee: Benito Archundia Tellez (Mexico).