Italy and France have the blues

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Four years after reaching the World Cup final, Italy's Azzurri and France's Les Bleus appear to have a bad case of, well, the blues just days ahead of their opening matches.

Critics say there's no way either will play in the final on July 11 at Soccer City. Both world champion Italy and runner-up France only need look at history. You know, been there, done that.

For France, the crisis is most acute if only because its opener is Friday and its opponent is a confident Uruguay. Italy has respite until Monday, when it opens against another South American challenger, Paraguay.

If other nations surge on national enthusiasm, France has to do with much less. Even Marcel Desailly, the defensive stalwart of the 1998 World Cup-winning team, has lost all belief that France will advance from Group A, which also includes Mexico and host South Africa.

"While I hope for South Africa and France to get into the second round, I think South Africa and Uruguay will make it," Desailly wrote in South Africa's Sunday Times.

And a poll in Le Parisien newspaper showed half of the nation believed Les Bleus would not go beyond the quarterfinals.

A shocking 1-0 loss to China in its last World Cup preparation game amped up the negative vibes, especially when it came on the heels of a lucky 1-1 draw with Tunisia and a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Costa Rica. None of those opponents qualified for the World Cup.

Even the highlight reels from qualifying don't lend a hand either in boosting French confidence for the players — or their fans. People around the world keep seeing the handball of Thierry Henry which helped France bamboozle its way past Ireland in a playoff and into the tournament.

The only voice of optimism comes from coach Raymond Domenech.

"We just lacked the finishing touch," he said of the loss to China, a typical opponent for a final warmup match, a minor team that should have given France's strikers scoring practice.

The coach has often been met with derision and he developed a tough skin in Germany four years ago before leading the country into the final, where it lost on penalty kicks to Italy. Then, as now, it was not expected to do well.

Four years ago, however, France still had the magical touch of Zinedine Zidane. Franck Ribery was expected to take over his leadership role and provide an unmatched sparkle, but he has fallen short on both counts so far. And much of his supporting cast would not have made some of the classic French teams over the past three decades.

Italy, too, has the same coach as four years ago, and Marcello Lippi has the same problems: too little sparkle and leadership amid his players.

He still relies on central defender Fabio Cannavaro, who was smooth and efficient at the World Cup and became FIFA's player of the year that season because of it. Pushing 37 now, he could not plug the holes in a 2-1 loss against Mexico in Brussels last week, and the usually vaunted Italian defense looked sluggish.

"We were second to every ball," Lippi complained.

And even when the Italians finally had the ball, they showed little.

A 1-1 draw on Saturday in their last warmup match against Switzerland, considered a rank outsider in the World Cup, brought little encouragement for the Italians.

"Italy gave us more space than Costa Rica," Switzerland defender Stephan Lichtsteiner said.

What's more, over its two preparation games, the Italian team was devoid of personality and creativity. It is still full of players who gave Lippi the title four years ago. His enduring trust could cost him and the four-time champs.

Then again, Italy has a tradition of looking bad early on before surprising everyone and notching another title.

Four years ago, a corruption scandal had the team reeling before it won the cup. In 1982, it didn't win any of its first three games before awakening from its slumber and lifting another trophy.

The blues can turn to gold over a four-week period.