1958. That was the last time that Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup. At least, until Monday evening. Certainly, November 13, 2017 will go down as one of the darkest days in Azzurri history, and the image of a heart-broken Gianluigi Buffon will be long seared in the memories of millions of fans around the world.
Next year’s World Cup will truly be interesting, as Italy now join notable sides like Chile and the United States who will not feature. Chile, arguably, were dealt a hard blow from the outset as the difficulty of South America’s qualifying system always means the huge likelihood that someone will have to remain at home. The USMNT’s failure to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986 after losing to Trinidad and Tobago was greeted by shock, anger, and dismay in the United States. Of course, the Stars and Stripes are nowhere near the levels of the Azzurri in terms of footballing prestige, and they will never be.
A World Cup without Italy is a shocking thing…but this could have been avoided with better choices
Italy, however, are among the premier sides in world football. Although the Azzurri have fallen from grace over the past decade, the fact that they, a winner of four World Cups (only matched by Germany and bettered by Brazil) are not at next year’s World Cup is simply not acceptable. That’s not to disrespect Sweden in any way, but certainly the fallout from them failing to qualify would not have been reverberating around the world. Even in 2013, when they failed to make it past a two-legged play-off with Portugal, the only disappointment – if any, really – was the fact that an ageing Zlatan Ibrahimovic wouldn’t have a chance to feature, and it was he himself trumpeting his influence with comments like, “A World Cup without Zlatan isn’t worth watching”. Of course, Ibrahimovic is known for his bombastic statements that really are part of his larger-than-life character, but in all honesty, Sweden’s absence wasn’t keenly felt one bit.
Italy’s problems have been there to see. Two back to back group stage exits at World Cups were a very disappointing return for the 2006 champions, but they restored some pride by redeeming themselves at EURO 2012, where they made it to the final, and even at EURO 2016, where they outplayed Spain to win 2-0 in the round of 16 and were only unlucky to lose on penalties to Germany in the quarter-finals.
However, the man that masterminded their solid EURO 2016 performance, a tournament that they weren’t even mentioned as favorites due to their World Cup 2014 disappointing showings, Antonio Conte, then departed for Chelsea. Surprisingly, the Federation then turned to Gian Piero Ventura, who despite his advanced years (69 at the time of his appointment) was still an odd choice, especially considering his lack of title-winning credentials and experience in leading well-known teams.
Ventura: A coach out of his depth from the very beginning
Ventura, to date, has won two Serie D and one Serie C title. One was in the mid ’80’s. The other two, in the ’90’s. Since then, he’s led a nomadic existence, coaching a slew of teams up and down the Italian peninsula with varied levels of success. Whilst of course, it’s hard to win the Scudetto with smaller teams like Udinese, his lack of tactical nous was brutally exposed during this World Cup qualifying process – namely how he opted to line up against Spain.
The fact that he publicly admitted shortly before the second leg against Sweden that “Italy were always going to finish second behind Spain”, thus basically condemning his side to the play-offs even before proceedings started is quite troubling. Yes, the Azzurri are not at the level of La Furia Roja, despite beating them at last summer’s EURO 2016. And the fact that they and Spain were placed in the same group always meant that someone was going to finish in second. The grouping was quite questionable, especially if one looks at the strength of some of the other groups. But Sweden were placed in a group that contained Holland and France. Did the Blågult go in with that defeatist attitude when they saw who they had for company and say, “Well, we’ll just have to wait till the next one as we’ll probably finish in third”? Or did Iceland, who are making their debut at next year’s tournament, adopt the same “Oh well, we might as well not even try to fight for top spot” when they saw that they had Croatia, a more experienced side that boasts top players like Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Perisic in their group?
No and no. Iceland topped their group, which forced the Vatreni into the play-offs. Meanwhile, Sweden, despite not boasting the overall star quality of France and perhaps Holland, put in a dogged shift to get the results they needed and pip the Oranje to a play-off spot.
So why would Ventura already decide that his team were going to finish in second? There’s an old saying that “Confession brings possession”. And that’s exactly what he ultimately helped to reap on the Azzurri as they did end up finishing second as we saw the unfortunate outcome on Monday. Ironically, the last time Italy failed to qualify, it was Sweden who hosted the tournament back in 1958, and it was the same Sweden that ended their hopes of joining all the other previous title winners at next year’s affairs.
The changing of the guard must start now
Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Daniele De Rossi are among those who decided to call time on their careers with the team. Three of those are a key part of the Juventus squad, and it will be interesting to see how this crushing blow will affect their mentalities as they now switch their focus back to helping the Bianconeri capture a seventh straight Scudetto and again try for the Champions League.
Interestingly, current federation boss Carlo Tavecchio had claimed that a World Cup without “Italy would be an apocalypse”. He’s gotten just that. The team’s core is no longer there, and people will still be reeling from the shock of not seeing the Azzurri at a World Cup for the first time in 60 years. Many fans alive today wouldn’t have been born the last time this happened; and on a personal note, this author’s own father was only six years old, while the author’s mother had not even been born yet. I personally was not born yet either when the USMNT last failed to qualify for a World Cup, but certainly, Italy’s failure to reach next year’s competition is obviously something I will be telling my children and my grandchildren for a long time. Just as my own father now is telling all of us his vague childhood memories of watching the 1958 World Cup, and the exploits of a then 17-year-old Pele – all without Italy taking part.
Personal anecdotes aside, it’s clear that this so-called “apocalypse” that Tavecchio himself predicted means one thing: the changing of the guard must start now. And that perhaps means it ought to start at the very top, including, yes, with Tavecchio himself, as he is the one that ultimately felt that Ventura would be the most qualified candidate to lead the team. Until then, Italy will be left to pick up the pieces, self-reflect, and now try to make sense of what happened.
Hopefully during that process they will come to the conclusion that they simply can’t continue in the same vein of form that led them to this disaster. To do so would be utter madness, but we all will just have to wait and see.
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