- Daniele Verry
- Italian journalist, special for BBC News
Italy’s three main sports newspapers agree in their assessment of the country’s shock elimination from the next World Cup by North Macedonia: ‘Disaster’.
That’s the word that the Gazzetta dello Sport, Corriere dello Sport and Tuttosport shouted on their front pages on Thursday after the game, won 0-1 by the visiting team with a goal in the 92nd minute.
And on newsstands across the country, the situation hadn’t changed much by Friday morning, with the respective headlines reading ‘Out of the world’, ‘To hell’ and ‘Nooooooooo’.
It is truly a sporting disaster for Italy, which misses two consecutive World Cups for the first timeas he also failed to qualify for Russia 2018.
When the 2026 World Cup takes place, assuming they manage to qualify, the Azzurri and their fans will be without a World Cup for 12 years.
It’s hard to assess whether Thursday’s calamity is more or less painful than the one that happened in November 2017, when the Azzurri failed to overtake Sweden and book a place in Russia. It was indeed a terrible night, the one in which Germany’s 2006 World Cup-winning heroes Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele de Rossi sadly said goodbye to international football.
But that’s also when a so-called process of renewal began: Roberto Mancini was appointed coach soon after and a new attacking mentality took hold. Three fantastic years followed, culminating in the crowning of Italy champions Europe at Wembley last July against England. Nobody forgot it.
But then it happened.
From heroes to villains
On the one hand, it seems that Italy should not have found itself in this situation in the first place. Mancini’s men remain the heroes of Wembley, the side that have gone unbeaten for 37 consecutive matches.
Frankly, they looked dominant in Group C qualifying, starting with three wins and then drawing four times between September and November last year, with Lithuania the only team they’ve beaten in their last five matches.
Two of those draws came against Switzerland, who won a straight qualifier at the finish line, with the four-time World Cup winners missing a penalty in both games. Scoring one of them would have been enough to see the Italian players comfortably seated in front of the TV last night, instead of losing to North Macedonia.
On the other hand, everyone felt that something had changed.
The Azzurri won the European Championship with serenity and quality; Thursday they mostly played long balls. Players like Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne, to name a few, are totally out of form. Regular defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni di Lorenzo were injured.
Even the boss seems to have lost his magic touch, insisting on picking players who are underperforming. So there were some understandable criticisms.
The newspapers point to a loss of identity, suggesting that Italy has reverted to an earlier version of itself; they have shown a lack of creativity and their most experienced players lack self-confidence.
But is that enough to explain what happened against a team ranked 47th in Europe and 67th in the world?
mirror of italian football
Once again, the devastating night in Palermo is just a mirror image of Italian football as a whole, something the Euro 2020 triumph had masked for a while.
Yes, there have been mistakes along the way: Jorginho, as he said on Thursday, will be thinking about those two missed penalties against the Swiss for as long as he lives; Mancini could have played Giacomo Raspadori from the start, but is that really his fault?
Italian football would do better to finally face up to its systemic problems, instead of looking for scapegoats and quick fixes.
No Serie A club has won a European trophy since 2010. Due to a non-strategic approach to youth football, top-flight clubs have an average of 2.7 Italian U21 players in their squads, who play all 4 % of total Serie A. minutes, 80% of those minutes as substitutes after the 70th minute.
The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) recently asked clubs to postpone Serie A Matchday 31 to prepare for World Cup qualifiers, but their request was denied. It was a legitimate decision in Serie A but now, with all due respect to the clubs involved, their team will not be taking part in the World Cup.
How important are the Azzurri to Italian football? What place do they deserve on a busy calendar? FIGC President Gabriele Gravina has no doubts about his position.
“Italy is seen by clubs as a disadvantage rather than an opportunity,” he said.
He also said: “We want Mancini to stay and he’s committed to us.”
The coach’s contract was extended not long ago until 2026, when the World Cup will be played in Mexico, USA and Canada.
After what he says is his “most painful” sporting disappointment, the 57-year-old former Inter and Manchester City boss has every right to lick his wounds. After that, he will hopefully continue to see himself as the best person to help implement the long-awaited structural changes in Italian football and form a new national team around young talents like Gianluca Scamacca, Davide Frattesi and Nicolo Zaniolo.
Otherwise, another “disaster” may occur.
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