JOHANNESBURG - Defending champion Italy was eliminated from the World Cup today after a humbling 3-2 loss that sent Slovakia through to the round of 16.
For the third consecutive match, the Azzurri conceded an early goal, and this time they never recovered.
"I take full responsibility," Italy coach Marcello Lippi said. "If the squad went out with fear in their legs and hearts it means the coach didn't prepare the match well tactically or psychologically."
Robert Vittek put Slovakia ahead in the 25th minute at Ellis Park, taking advantage of an errant pass from midfielder Daniele De Rossi. He then doubled the lead from close range in the 73rd following a corner.
Antonio Di Natale pulled one back for Italy in the 81st, but Kamil Kopunek scored another in the 89th for the Slovaks. Fabio Quagliarella put in the final goal in injury time.
Paraguay won Group F with five points, and Slovakia finished second with four points. New Zealand exited with three points and Italy was last with two, marking the first time the Azzurri have finished last in their group.
"We've shown that we're not here for a holiday," Slovakia forward Erik Jendrisek said.
Jendrisek added that the key for Slovakia was to be aggressive and not sit back.
"As soon as we were too passive, the Italians were more dangerous and scored, so we decided that we had to be more aggressive again," Jendrisek said.
The rest of the Slovakia players refused to speak with the media in an apparent show of support for coach Vladimir Weiss following his dispute with local reporters after a 2-0 loss to Paraguay.
While Slovakia's players heaped on top of one another to celebrate at the final whistle, the Azzurri walked off the field with their heads held low, with tears visible on some of their faces.
Quagliarella and Di Natale were particularly distraught, realising their goals counted for little.
Italy also allowed early goals in its opening 1-1 draws with Paraguay and New Zealand, and the Azzurri attack struggled in all three games - save for the final 10 minutes against Slovakia.
"Slovakia and New Zealand are teams worth respecting but nothing more and if we can't beat at least one of them it's only fair that we go home," said injured goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who watched from the sidelines again with a herniated disk in his back.
It was the end of an era for Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro and midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who already announced they would retire from the national team after the tournament. Lippi is also moving on, with Cesare Prandelli already named as his successor.
Italy's squad featured nine players that are 30 or older, led by the 36-year-old Cannavaro.
"We were a disappointment and everyone saw it," Buffon added. "The difference between 2006 and 2010 is that there are no longer enough players like (Francesco) Totti and (Alessandro) Del Piero.
"(Prandelli) will have to start a new cycle and I hope he's got his ideas in order, because the current situation of Italian football isn't great."
Lippi already left after Italy's title in 2006, then returned after Roberto Donadoni led the Azzurri to the quarterfinals of the 2008 European Championship.
"I don't regret coming back," Lippi said. "It was an experience I wanted to replicate. I was convinced I could do things differently and I'm sorry."
Slovakia is playing in its first major tournament since the former Czechoslovakia divided in 1993. The team conceded a stoppage time equaliser in its opening 1-1 draw with New Zealand and lost to Paraguay 2-0.
Vittek's opening goal came on a low shot just beyond the reach of Italy goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, who again replaced Buffon. He then beat Giorgio Chiellini from close range following a corner for his second goal.
Di Natale slid in a rebound from a Quagliarella shot and - with four forwards on - Quagliarella nearly equalized in the 85th but he was ruled offside.
Slovakia restored its two-goal lead in the 89th when Kopunek lifted a bouncing ball over Marchetti.
Quagliarella finally found the target in the second minute of injury time with a powerful long-range shot. A draw would have put Italy through, but Simone Pepe missed a volley wide in the fifth minute of added time.
Andrea Pirlo came on in the 56th for his first action since injuring his left calf in a pre-tournament friendly against Mexico three weeks ago and the crafty playmaker gave Italy's sagging attack a much-needed boost.
Still, for 80 minutes Italy's forwards were unable to find the target, and no forward scored in open play during the Azzurri's opening two matches.
Italy hasn't won since beating Sweden 1-0 in a friendly in November, drawing five times and losing twice.
It was Italy's first loss at the World Cup since allowing a golden goal to South Korea in the second round in 2002.
With France also eliminated, it's the first time that both previous World Cup finalists have been sent home after the group phase.