Haridev Pushparaj –
Muscat, Nov 14 –
Yes, it’s official, the fabled ‘Azzurri’ are out.
This Italian side that failed to qualify for the World Cup with a 1-0 aggregate play-off defeat to Sweden maybe nowhere close to the best Italian teams of yore, but they had a huge legacy to protect.
Italy are Italy after all. Almost 200 countries play football and are part of the Fifa umbrella, but how many can claim to be four-time world champions (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), two-time runners up (1978, 1994) and a third-place finisher (1990).
Shock, surprise and disbelief all at once is what Italians feel as the reality kicks in across the streets of Rome, Milan and Turin. This is the enormity of what transpired on a devastating night for the Gianluigi Buffon-led side at the San Siro.
The Italian media joined the nation and millions of football romantics around the world in mourning the unthinkable. One of Italy’s most popular sports tabloids, La Gazzetta dello Sport captured the mood of the football fans around the world with this epitaph:
“Italy are right back at the very beginning. Buffon’s tears and the deafening silence of the San Siro seem like a gravestone, on which the verdict is unequivocally inscribed: goodbye Russia, we are not going to the World Cup for the first time since the distant 1958. It is one of the darkest pages of our sporting history; a brutal blow beyond the incalculable damage for a country which lives and breathes football. It’s a sporting equivalent of Titanic”.
Having won just one World Cup finals game since their 2006 victory in Germany, Italy’s downslide has been in the works since Fabio Cannavaro lifted the trophy.
Group-stage exits in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups indicated their rough patch was pretty long drawn. The appointment of Antonio Conte ensured a last-16 place at Euro 2016 but the rot had already hit the squad and it was hard to retrieve themselves from there.
A large part of the criticism would be naturally directed at Gian Piero Ventura and his circumspect style of coaching lacking clarity.
Seven of the players in the present Italy squad that played Sweden in the first leg in Stockholm were 30 years or older. Among the seven, four were 33 or older.
In the age of the fast-paced game, Italy were just not on the ball and found themselves short in many games, the play-off against Sweden showing their ineptitude.
Poor finishing and messing up the final passes was the order of the day and it has been troubling the Italians for a while now.
That a team comprising the likes of Daniele de Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Buffon failed to put it across a Swedish team that had just four players with experience in Europe’s Big-5 leagues tells the story.
Italy were just not upto it. Fresher legs and newer talents were required perhaps and as England, Germany and Spain have been doing, they will have to look at their youth system closely.
Coaching decisions would all come under the scanner and Ventura has a lot to answer to. Not playing Jorginho, who just joined Milan, for a long time baffles fans and observers alike as he was Italy’s most creative player before half-time in the second leg.
Ventura held back from introducing Lorenzo Insigne from the bench and that is sure to be questioned as well. With Insigne in good touch, he could have made a moment of difference in such a crucial game.
The immediate fall-out of the catastrophe that has hit Italian football would be the retirements of the 39-year-old Buffon along with team-mates De Rossi, Chiellini and Barzagli.
Whatever the post-mortem analysis would be, whether it be Italy’s grouping with Spain as compared to relatively easy draws for England and Germany, the disaster is here.
Italy have some really deep soul-searching and brainstorming to do if they wish to redeem themselves at Qatar 2022.
However, Fifa World Cup 2018 in Moscow has been dealt a body blow with the non-qualification of Italy. With the Netherlands not making it, Chile and USA falling short, some of the sheen was getting rubbed off.
But to not have one of football’s elite at the game’s biggest show will be a hard pill to swallow for fans across the globe.