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The Azzurri are giants of international football. The United States are not. Wednesday night’s game served as proof of the difference - again.

By Greg Lalas

PRETORIA, South Africa -- What is it about Italy and the United States that produces red cards? Three years ago at the World Cup, the two teams combined for three red cards in a 1-1 draw. Then here, on Monday night at the Confederations Cup, a first-half red card to U.S. midfielder Ricardo Clark ultimately proved the pivotal moment, as Italy scorched their undermanned opponents, 3-1.

In each game, the U.S. had an advantage, and when the final whistle blew, they felt they should’ve done better, that they deserved something more from the game than they ultimately got. But is that really true? Or is it an unwavering confidence on the Americans’ part that deludes them into thinking Italy was ever there for the taking?

Remember, in Germany, the two teams were tied in the 28th minute when Italy’s Daniele De Rossi was sent off for elbowing Brian McBride. After that the Americans practically breathed confidence and their fans thought an upset was in the making. But an ill-advised late tackle by Pablo Mastroeni evened the personnel situation and then a second yellow card to Eddie Pope put Italy up a man.  

Through the entire game, through De Rossi’s ejection and the Americans’ momentum, the Italians kept their calm, went about their business like the experienced professionals they inevitably are, and eventually the game ended 1-1. Italy, of course, went on to win the trophy. The U.S. went home.

Flash forward three years, nearly to the day. This time, the US went down a man. Clark’s tackle on Gennaro Gattuso was shown a straight red by Chilean referee Pablo Pozo. The Americans were incredulous. The Italians played up the drama and pain. But let’s be honest. Pozo was one of the only people here in Loftus Versfeld Stadium who truly believed in his heart of hearts that Clark’s tackle was malicious and worthy of a red card. As several observers noted immediately, it was a yellow, at best.  

But things like this happen when you play one of the international giants. Italy are the reigning World Champions. They are the Azzurri, a word that must be said with all the panache and gravitas becoming their success. And when Italy are playing a team like the United States—that is, a side that is still an upstart, a team of the future—they catch breaks like this. If the roles had been reversed and Gattuso had committed the same tackle on Clark, there would have been no red card. Or if they’re had been, the referee would’ve evened play very quickly.

Unconsciously or not, Pozo made a dubious call that obviously affected the outcome of the game in Italy’s favor. That’s not to diminish the Italians’ performance. It wasn’t impressive, but it was effective. After all, they had to score the goals, and they did. Giuseppe Rossi came on and lashed his gorgeous bullet after taking advantage of the midfield hole left by Clark’s departure. De Rossi fired a dipping 35-yard shot that skipped past two defenders and a screened Tim Howard. And finally Rossi finished a lovely move by Andrea Pirlo to nail the coffin in place.  

Despite the final score, this was not what anyone would call a dominating performance from Italy. Nor was it a particularly poor performance from the United States. The Americans, already down a man, actually took the lead in the first half, and it wasn’t until the insertion of Giuseppe Rossi midway through the second half—when the US team started to run out of fuel—that the Azzurri began to assert themselves. He provided the imagination in the middle they had lacked all game. (Where are you, Antonio Cassano?)  

Oh, the irony. Rossi, as any American soccer fan will tell you, was born in New Jersey and played his earliest football in the United States. But the son of a native Italian, he chose to play for Italy. This, too, is the kind of fortune that smiles on an international giant like Italy. When a young talent like Rossi has the opportunity to play for the reigning World Champions as opposed to playing for a still-developing side, he goes for it.

And luckily for Italy on Wednesday night, he did. The real irony is not that an Italian-American kid from New Jersey scored against the U.S., but that Italy needed the Italian-American kid from New Jersey to beat the U.S.

Greg Lalas is the editor in chief of the forthcoming Magazine.