Del Piero disappointment
Italian striker never got on track in France

July 06, 1998

PARIS -- Alessandro Del Piero arrived in France as Italy's great hope for the World Cup finals but left a month later as the tournament's biggest flop.

The Juventus striker made only one notable contribution to Italy's labored trudge to the quarterfinals when his free kick set up Christian Vieri to score against Austria in the first round.

Otherwise, the nimble forward who electrified Serie A and the Champions' League last season was anonymous.

He was bundled off the ball with ease in Italy's first round ties. Against Norway in the second round he found more space but failed to use it, squandering three clear-cut chances as the Italians sweated to a 1-0 victory under the Marseille sun.

Roberto Baggio said Del Piero needed to score just once, "to unblock himself." 

But the goal never came and the wonderfully gifted player, hailed as the heir to Baggio in the national side, flew home with nothing but disappointment from his first major tournament.

"Maybe Baggio was right. Maybe if I had scored against Norway everything would have been different," he said.

"But how will we ever know? I prefer not to torment myself. I too imagined this would be a wonderful month and I too am deeply disappointed."

Del Piero's World Cup nightmare started not in France, not in Italy, but in Amsterdam on May 20 when Juventus lost to Real Madrid in the European Cup final.

Towards the end of the match he jogged over to the touchline for treatment to a groin injury.

The injury appeared innocuous enough but the following day, when Italy coach Cesare Maldini announced his World Cup party, Del Piero was included only provisionally.

He was told to rest for 10 days and for a while it appeared he might not even make the finals.

In the end he did, but he missed Italy's opener against Chile and never managed a full 90 minutes in any of his subsequent four World Cup appearances.

Was the injury to blame for Del Piero's dire World Cup?

He says no and Maldini, never a man to take risks, said he was convinced Del Piero was match fit from mid-June.

Another explanation could be that Del Piero simply ran out of steam after a season in which he played 56 times as Juventus successfully defended their league title and reached the European Cup final and the Italian Cup semifinals.

Whatever the reason, the impish striker looked lost in France and failed to read the thoughts of his team mates.

If Del Piero peeled off to the left, the Italians invariably attacked down the right. If he came deep to collect the ball from midfield, it would be knocked long, over his head.

No one who saw Del Piero in action last season could doubt he has the ability to put France '98 behind him.

He scored 33 goals in the league and cups and created dozens more with his artistry, his delicate touches, unpredictable feints and lightning acceleration.

Del Piero, only 23 years old, also has plenty of time to bounce back from his disastrous World Cup debut.

In Italy they call him "Pinturicchio" after a Renaissance artist renowned for his subtle frescoes.

Del Piero failed to cover the French World Cup canvas with his talent but, once the despair has gone, will have his artist's eye on the European championship in 2000.