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Kelly: Baffling performance has us asking what Italy’s trying to do

The only way to explain it is some sort of conspiracy. There has to be some angle to Italy's shocking 1-0 surrender to Costa Rica on Friday.

If Brazil is the spiritual home of the game, Italy is its back kitchen, where shady deals are cooked up. Match-fixing and bribery scandals are so common there, they hardly merit much notice any more.

This was the first tournament in recent memory that didn't start with Italian roster decisions based partly on which prospective player is imminently expecting a bench warrant.

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Italians are so inured to this sort of thing that they have their own slang term for a mutually advantageous fix ginned up by a pair of teams – the biscotto (a twice-baked cookie). Every time something dodgy goes down, it's "biscotto" and a shoulder shrug.

Whenever Italy takes a rest day in the midst of a game it should have won – and it should have won on Friday – you begin to sniff around for winners and losers.

The obvious loser is England. Italy's defeat ends that country's slim chances of advancing. England is headed out of a World Cup at the group stage for the first time in more than 50 years.

(Brief pause for a skyward glance, and a nod of thanks.)

If he has any sense of justice, England manager Roy Hodgson will concede his side's pointless final game to give the team a head start on its swim home.

What's not obvious is what Italy gets out of this.

The win puts Costa Rica into the second round. This is the first time ever that Italy has lost a World Cup game to a team from North America. That's good news for CONCACAF, which should not be confused as good news for Canada. Everybody else is inching up the mountain. We lost our grip a few years back. We're still falling.

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Either Italy or Uruguay will join Costa Rica in the Round of 16. Italy requires a win or a draw in that meeting with Uruguay on Tuesday.

"The loss was deserved," Italian manager Cesare Prandelli said after the Costa Rica game. Which is correct.

"We do not fear Uruguay." Which is not.

If it plays anywhere near as lackadaisically against Uruguay's forward pair of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez as it did against Costa Rica, that match will need to be halted on a mercy rule. If it plays as compactly and smartly as it did in its first game against England, it wins. So … jump ball?

The Italians are, increasingly notoriously, a form team at big tournaments. Sometimes they have it, and sometimes they spend two weeks looking under couch cushions for it before they have to go home.

They went into the previous World Cup as defending champions, and then spent the first round stumbling around the pitch as if 11 guys were chasing a single hat.

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I was at the 2010 game in Nelspruit, South Africa, in which they tied New Zealand 1-1 – which is the equivalent of going fishing, and you and the fish agreeing over beers later to call it a draw. The Italian fans on hand were so overcome with disgust, they didn't bother to boo their own team. Instead, they cheered the New Zealanders, which is far worse.

It's four years on – with a clutch of great performances and a Euro final in between – but that same Italy resurfaced in Brazil on Friday.

From the off, the Italians looked something much more than out of sorts. They looked bored. All of them looked like their fulcrum, Andrea Pirlo.

Since Pirlo is a genius and as old as the hills, he is allowed to spend most of the game stalking around the pitch like a boulevardier instead of an athlete. None of the other Italians is good enough to pull that off. But everyone was doing their best Pirlo impression, minus the brains. No Italian moved without the ball, which is sort of the whole point of playing professional soccer.

Ahead of the game, the man who represents Italian innocence to Pirlo's experience, forward Mario Balotelli, had said that he expected a kiss from Queen Elizabeth II if Italy did England the favour of beating Costa Rica. Apparently, the other guys heard about it and decided they aren't into older women.

Nonetheless, much augured in their favour. Quality and depth and yadda yadda yadda. More importantly, the Chilean ref was calling the game like he'd spent the warm-up staring deeply into a pulsating disco ball.

Early on, defender Giorgio Chiellini stuck his foot out to receive a pass. It bounced right over and onto the foot of Costa Rica's Joel Campbell. Chiellini chased Campbell into the box and tackled him from behind. Play on, said Chile's Enrique Osses.

And you figured, it's going to be that sort of day. Except it wasn't. Costa Rica stayed good. Italy stayed bad. So did Osses, though, amazingly, his incompetence had no bearing on the result.

Costa Rica scored a crossed ball into the box (Chiellini again). Italy poured forwards into the lineup. They made no impression. This was as much a whipping as a 1-0 result can ever be.

And you're still sitting back, unable to believe the evidence of your eyes, saying to yourself, "What's Italy up to here?"

If this was the result of an Italian plot, there was no way to discern it. Which is, of course, the perfect conspiracy. All that proves is that while you may not be from there or root for them, whenever you watch Italy, it brings out your Italian.

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