WELLINGTON, New Zealand –
Italy’s players dropped to their knees, buried their faces and tearfully wondered how their tournament had suddenly ended following a shocking upset to South Africa in the Women’s World Cup.
The 54th-ranked team in the world stunned Italy, ranked 16th by FIFA, with a 3-2 victory over the Italians in Wednesday’s Group G finale. South Africa won with a stoppage-time goal by Thembi Kgatlana.
South Africa was ecstatic as players screamed and danced and said thankful prayers in the hallway leading to their locker room.
The Italians left in tears and unable to explain the upset.
“I really don’t know,” goalkeeper Francesca Durante said after the match. “I don’t know what didn’t work.”
Nearly every player took the blame for the early elimination, even Arianna Caruso, who scored both of Italy’s goals.
“I don’t think I can find the right words in this moment,” Caruso said. “I am not happy because we scored two goals and we didn’t do anything.”
Italy’s problems against South Africa began before Wednesday night’s game: a brutal 4-0 loss to Sweden was perhaps too difficult to overcome, even with a spot in the round of 16 at stake.
“I’m sure that the game against Sweden and all the goals we conceded affected our trust, our confidence, our peace of mind,” said Italy coach Milena Bertolini. “I think it’s clear that today the emotional side was actually an important factor.”
The Italians were slowed by more than their emotions.
An own goal from Benedetta Orsi came from poor communication in the backfield and allowed South Africa to regain momentum after falling down by a goal. Then Italy’s inability to close out the match allowed Kgatlana to take the game away after a nice pass from Hildah Magaia.
Put simply by Bertolini: “I think that South Africa played better than us and deserved to win.”
It was Italy’s fourth Women’s World Cup, where it has twice made the quarterfinals, most recently in 2019.
The loss doesn’t destroy the future of Italian women’s soccer, though. The Italians fielded 16-year-old Guiliana Dragoni, one of the tournament’s youngest stars, in all three of their matches.
So as difficult as the loss was, Italian women’s soccer could be set for a rebuild.
“It’s a fig that is hard to swallow,” Bertolini said. “I believe that as far as the future of Italian female soccer is concerned, I think we do have a future.”
Joe Lister is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.