Balotelli Brazil
Italy's Mario Balotelli appears during the team's 2014 World Cup Group D soccer match against Costa Rica at the Pernambuco arena in Recife, Brazil, June 20, 2014. Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler

Italians were not expecting this: With a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Costa Rica, Italy has joined the ranks of the Great Soccer Nations humiliated by lesser figures at the 2014 World Cup. After Spain conceded seven goals in two games, lost to underdog Chile and was eliminated early, and after England became the other soccer power exiting unceremoniously after a loss to unheralded Uruguay, it was the Italians’ turn to taste humiliation. A tiny nation’s team with near-zero history at the World Cup shut out the four-time world champions and beat them deservedly.

Granted, it’s not curtains for Italy at the Brazilian World Cup. With a 2-1 victory against England in its opening game and Friday’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, it needs just a draw against Uruguay in the third and final game to advance out of Group D and into the round of 16. That is still eminently possible, although it will be a hard fight (Uruguay needs a win at all costs to advance).

But the Italian press wasn’t happy on Friday. For once, the beloved nazionale had begun its World Cup campaign convincingly, beating England thanks to stellar play from stars Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli, and showcasing an inspired, cohesive team that controlled the match throughout. That did not last long. Six days later, the 11 men in the blue shirts were unrecognizable, out of ideas, slow and predictable in their passing game, outmatched by a much livelier foe.

“This time Italy is a disaster,” was the headline on the homepage of Gazzetta dello Sport, the nation’s biggest sports daily -- and the largest-circulation paper by far in the country, where its pink pages are ubiquitous on Mondays during soccer season. “It’s another flop by the blues,” Gazzetta said next to a picture of Balotelli hiding his face in his blue jersey (he may just have been wiping sweat in the tropical Brazilian heat, but the message was the same: We ought to be as ashamed as he is).

Rome-based daily La Repubblica, home of the country’s most snobbish sports commentators, seemed baffled. “Italy is unrecognizable,” its homepage said on Friday just after the match ended. Its soccer writers dispatched to Brazil took a slightly belligerent tone, criticizing coach Cesare Prandelli’s tactical choices as “absurd” and saying the team “had no ideas and no character.” “Maybe this is the real Italy, not the one that beat England,” wondered one. (An old saying maintains that Italy is a nation of 60 million soccer coaches, and never is this more true than after a World Cup defeat.)

But Italians don’t have to face, yet, the national doom that hit the Spaniards and the English after their two-losses-in-a-row undignified exits. In a stroke of soccer luck, they are still well-positioned to get out of the first round alive. “No panic,” Prandelli was quoted by Gazzetta as saying. Thanks to Costa Rica’s stellar performance, his team can finish second in the group and advance with just a measly draw versus Uruguay on Tuesday. Italy can still even win its group, if it beats Uruguay and if Costa Rica, which is already sure of advancing, is defeated by England, which is already eliminated. For a nation enamored with melodrama, then, it’s not time yet for collective wailing as the curtain goes down.