In the end, it was Italian coach Marcello Lippi who made the most honest confession. His team, he said, had played "with terror in its heart and head and legs."
It took 80 minutes for the Italians to shake off the fear and finally perform with the immense talent they possess. By then it was too late.
In a World Cup of uncommon drama and startling upsets, this may have been the unlikeliest of all. Tiny, youthful Slovakia, a country of just five million people and 17 years of official existence, dethroned the reigning champion Italians in a shocking 3-2 victory that sent home another top-ranked team in a shameful early exit.
It's the first time in history that the finalists from the previous World Cup have both been eliminated in the first round. France, the other finalist, was sent home Tuesday after failing to win a single game in the opening round. Now Italy has suffered the same fate, finishing winless in bottom place in its group, with a humiliating two points, behind even New Zealand.
It's the first time since 1974 that the Italians have been dumped in the first round, and it came in a year when they seemed to be gifted with an easy group, featuring minnows such as New Zealand and Slovakia. For the Slovaks, in their first World Cup, it was an upset of stunning dimensions.
The Azzurri seemed to realize the approaching calamity, at last, in the final 15 minutes of the match, when they began playing with a sudden ferocity and urgency. But they had awoken too late, and the courageous Slovaks were full value for their victory.
Slovakia played with unexpected heart and determination. Countless times they outfought the lethargic Italians for the ball, intercepting passes, counterattacking with vigour and exploiting every defensive breakdown. They seemed bigger, stronger, faster and more fearless. But the real mystery was the Italian side, which again seemed to slumber against a lower-ranked team after earlier unimpressive draws against New Zealand and Paraguay.
Lippi was one of the heroes of Italy's championship victory in 2006, but he said he took "full responsibility" for the defeat this time. He will get his share of blame from the Italian fans, who have criticized him for choosing players who seemed too old and too slow.
Four years ago, Italy allowed only two goals during the entire World Cup. This time it allowed more goals than that in a single match against the lightly regarded Slovaks.
In the first half, the Azzurri performance was shockingly dismal. The players appeared apathetic and sluggish, allowing Slovakia to control possession for 62 per cent of the first half. It was an Italian blunder in the 25th minute - a sloppy pass by Daniele De Rossi, easily intercepted by Slovakia - that led to the first goal, by Robert Vittek.
In the second half, Lippi began to inject new blood into the team, and it appeared to help. Among the substitutes were forward Fabio Quagliarella and midfielder Andrea Pirlo, the creative playmaker who led Italy to victory at the 2006 World Cup but has battled injury here.
By then the Italians knew that they were facing the imminent threat of elimination, and they began to play with passion and fire. Quagliarella scored one goal and assisted on another, in the 81st minute and in stoppage time, but the Slovaks had added two more goals of their own as they exploited more Italian errors. Italy pressed desperately to the final moments, but could not score the equalizer.
"If I was part of the success in 2006, I have to take the blame for this failure too," Lippi told reporters after the match. "If a team shows up at an important game with terror in its heart and head and legs, it must mean the coach did not train them as he should have done. The players didn't play right, they didn't press, they didn't build, they didn't do anything. I still have belief in the players, but no one would believe that was the real Italian team, the one you saw out there."
The Slovaks were stunned and ecstatic at the biggest victory of their soccer history. Their coach, Vladimir Weiss, said it was one of the greatest days of his life. "Today," he declared, "the better team won. It's a fantastic day for us."
The near-capacity crowd of more than 53,000 at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg was dominated by Italy fans. But after the match, it was the Slovak fans who were euphorically waving flags and singing, unwilling to leave the stadium, still in shock at the result.