Carlo Tavecchio, the president of the Italian FA, famously said in September that “not qualifying would be an apocalypse.” And last night, at the San Siro, eleven Norsemen dressed in blue and gold brought it upon them, setting back the world clock by sixty years in the process.
A few years ago, if someone had mooted the possibility of a World Cup without Italy and the Netherlands, you would’ve been forgiven for laughing in their face.
These after all, are two powerhouses of world football, both ranked in the top 20 in the world, and almost always knocking at the door of international glory. But, then this is perhaps how the apocalypse would always have arrived, without much fanfare, and noise, slowly creeping up on the rest of us, while we stood oblivious to its assault.
Italy didn’t go to the World Cup in 1930. They didn’t qualify for the World Cup in 1958 — beaten that time by Northern Ireland in Belfast, in a result that sent shockwaves through the small sporting world of the time. And now, they will not be at the World Cup in 2018.
It is 20 years since Italy’s last appearance in a play-off for World Cup qualification. In a twist of fate, their opponents then were next summer’s hosts, Russia. The first leg of that tie was played in snow and sub zero temperatures and is remembered as the night a 19-year-old Gianluigi Buffon made his debut as a 32nd minute substitute for Gianluca Pagliuca. Flash forward to the present, and after 175 caps, Buffon has come the full circle and has been cruelly forced to retire after their failure in a World Cup play-off.
Perhaps there was an element of misfortune here. Italy were unfortunate to be drawn into a group with Spain, when they might have got Romania or Wales. They were unfortunate to have finished second in the group and then draw the most impressive of the non-seeded second place sides in the play-off. And then of course, they will point to the individual moments of misfortune through the two legs, that knocked them out: the elbow on Leonardo Bonucci in the first leg that might have earned Ola Toivonen a first-minute red card; the deflected Jakob Johansson shot that brought the only goal; the string of saves made by the Swedish keeper Robin Olsen; the two penalties they might have won in the second leg.
But, in truth, Sweden could’ve also had two penalties, and for most of the second half on Monday, Italy lost their shape and calm, the two things the Azzurri pride themselves most over.
And the truth also is that this setback is a surprise, but not a shock.
The Italian media, has, over the past week blamed the federation for not being smart enough to game the system as Romania, Wales and Poland did to secure a better ranking (Italy are ranked 15 in the world). They have also laid into Gian Piero Ventura and his uninventive style of play, that baffles viewers about his appointment.
Even on Monday, with the game edging to a stalemate, Ventura attempted to bring on Daniele de Rossi, as a substitute to turn the game around. De Rossi, a defensive midfielder, refused to warm up, seeing, like others did, the absurdity of such an action. Ventura also opted to not start with Lorenzo Insigne, the top man for key passes this season across Europe’s top five leagues. Italy had the lion’s share of possession, but were struggling to break Sweden down while Insigne warmed the bench.
To talk about their failure, looking at just their games against Sweden would be missing the bigger picture. It wasn’t just that Italy finished behind Spain in the group stages, it was also that they were hammered by them in Madrid. In Paris last summer, Antonio Conte’s Italy had pummeled Spain in the last 16 of the Euros and won 2-0. Two and half months later the sides met in Turin and drew 1-1. Then in September this year they met in Madrid and Spain humiliated Italy, winning 3-0, when it could have been far more.
It was not just that game, though. They struggled to a 1-1 draw against FYR Macedonia in the group stages of qualification. They scraped a 1-0 win over Israel at home. Throw it back further and there have been draws in friendlies in the past five years against Haiti and Luxembourg. Italy may have a point about the iniquities of the FIFA rankings but no side can expect much sympathy with that sort of results.
Assuming they qualify in 2022, Italy will head to Qatar having won only one match at a World Cup finals since they lifted the trophy in 2006. This is a failure that has been brewing for years.
The biggest issue by far though are the players. There was a general consensus, that Italy’s Euro 2016 squad was the weakest of its kind and it was only the tactical genius of Conte that dragged them to a quarter-final.
So it is no coincidence that last night’s starting XI contained six players over the age of 30; for the first leg in Stockholm, the number was seven, of which four were 33 or older. This is an ageing side, and that fact usualy points to a dearth of talent.
Players can never be directly replaced, but in Italy, it is almost always guaranteed that their defensive wall will keep resurrecting itself by way of Ra’s Al Ghul’s Lazarus pit. Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Canavarro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Franco Baresi, have all at some point of time been replaced. Georgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzaghli and Bonucci look ageless, but they are not. And their replacements are nowhere to be found. Up in midfield, the losses of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio have not been adequately filled over time although Marco Verratti’s suspension was a tougher blow than previously imagined.
There is something inherently wrong with the Italian system. Gifted young players are not emerging in sufficient quantities, or not being developed. Germany, France and England have all undergone awkward reassessments of their youth structures; Italy must undergo a similar reboot.
While we mourn Italian football’s shock fall from grace, credit must also be given to Sweden. The Swedes have, over the course of World Cup qualification beaten France, the Netherlands and now Italy to get to Russia. Yesterday at the San Siro, they did to Italy what Italy have, for years done to others. They built themselves a strong defensive wall, filled it with structure and patience, and wore their opponents down. By the end, the statistics made for absurd reading. Italy had thrown everything at the Swedes and come away with nothing. Perhaps there was no worse way for Italy to go out, beaten at their own game, looking older and wearier at it. The Italian Job needs a serious reinvention.