THE Italian headlines have been screaming, the histrionics have begun and the post-mortems are in full flow – Italy will not be in Russia in 2018 and it is excruciatingly painful for the four-time winners of the FIFA World Cup.
Millions of Italians woke up on Tuesday with a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. “Can it be true?,” they were undoubtedly asking, but then they saw the images of a tearful Gigi Buffon, the shocked faces of the Milanese crowd, there could be no denying the scale of the disaster that unfolded in the San Siro. If there is a parallel, it is surely Wembley 1973, when England bowed out of the competition at the hands of the Poles. From an Italian perspective, it is arguably the worst moment since 1966 when North Korea sent them home from England to face their rotten tomatoes.
Is it really that much of a surprise, though? Italian football has been in decline for some time and although Juventus have dined at the top table these past few years, the Turin club’s success is not reflective of the overall state of domestic football. Juve’s dominance over the past half dozen seasons suggests a lack of strength in depth in Serie A.
Italy surprisingly won the World Cup in 2006, that’s just 11 years ago, but 2018 will be the third competition since that unlikely triumph. Only England in 1973 have fallen more quickly from their perch when they were eliminated from the party for 1974 after defending their title in 1970 – although France experienced a similar decline from 1998 to 2010. But consider that in 2014, Italy were in a group that included England, Uruguay and Costa Rica, and Italy came in third behind the Costa Ricans. In fact, in the two competitions that followed 2006, Italy failed to get out of their group. They reached the last eight in Euro 2016 after beating Spain in the last 16, but penalties against the Germans undid them.
It was Spain that proved too strong for Italy in the World Cup qualifiers in a group that also comprised Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein. They finished runners-up, fairly predictably, but Sweden won the two-legged play-off.
The consequences for Italy, the country, will not be insignificant. Although Serie A is not the competition of old and its average attendances are a shadow of the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s, football is still a national passion to be discussed over coffee and wine. Economists predict that the Azzurri’s absence in Russia may cost the nation around € 1 billion in advertising sales, television rights and merchandising. Travel operators will miss out and other peripheral activities such as gambling, drinking and eating will also suffer.
It’s not just Italy that will feel the cold wind of failure – FIFA, already reeling from the loss of the US, have now lost one of Europe’s “big five” football countries, which will dilute TV viewing figures and commercial support for the competition. As we have said before, UEFA needs a strong Italy and competitive Italian teams, but FIFA also needs Italy to be involved in the World Cup.
But is Italy capable of coming back as a strong and influential nation that can compete for honours once more? Some of the fundamentals don’t look too good, but you have to assume that the will to succeed will eventually drive a comeback.
Let’s look at the current ages of the squads in Serie A – an average of 27.37 – this does not compare too well against countries like Germany (26.01), Spain (26.91) and France (26.17). It might not sound like a big gap, but it does hint at too many older players, which does not bode well for the future. Juventus has an average of 29.33 years, for example.
Italy also has more foreign players than most countries, which again points to a strong appetite to shop abroad. Italian Serie A clubs’ appearances are 54.6% filled by expatriates, a problem that exists in most major countries.
But what is really concerning is the very low level of appearances made by players who have been trained by clubs from youth level – in Italy it is just 6.4%. England has an even worse problem, but there are indications they may be addressing some of their issues.
Italy has long looked at Germany for inspiration – remember the current World champions also went through some serious soul-searching at the turn of the century. Carlo Tavecchio, the president of the Italian Football Federation, promised 200 national football centres to try and reinvent the domestic game and improve the national team. So far, just 30 have been set-up, around a third of that figure in the past few weeks when the country’s football authorities realised there were problems simmering.
It is not all bad news, though and right now, Italy need men and women with vision to reinvent their football structure. Juventus may have been in two UEFA Champions League finals, but Italy needs the Milan clubs, resurgent Napoli and the Roman duo of Roma and Lazio to emerge from the shadows. There have been some encouraging signals – Napoli have looked very dynamic this season and Roma trounced Chelsea 3-0 recently. There are stories that Antonio Conte wants to return home – what better man to spearhead the great Italian revival?
What’s more, Italy have talent waiting in the wings. Everyone enthused about England’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup win, but Italy finished in third place and the competition’s top scorer was Riccardo Orsolini, a Juventus product on loan at Atalanta. Furthermore, in the UEFA Under-21 Championship, Italy reached the semi-finals and Federico Bernardeschi of Juventus was one of the players of the tournament. In fact, the 23 year-old is one of Europe’s most coveted young players with a price tag of around € 60 million hanging over him. And there’s 26 year-old Lorenzo Isigne of Napoli, who has been in great form this season but was snubbed by Azzurri coach Giampiero Ventura.
Italy were unfortunate to have Spain in their World Cup qualifying group, but during the summer months, one of the great footballing nations has time to reflect on what went wrong – it isn’t a 16-team World Cup anymore, it is deliberately designed to ensure that countries like Italy are present every time! Serie A was once envied by the rest of the world – it certainly provided the inspiration and blueprint for England’s Premier. Somewhere down the road, one that has been paved not just with gold, but with scandal, politics and complacency, Italy mislaid its heritage. It is not too late to reclaim it, but doing the same thing over and over again won’t change a thing. It is also a warning to others. If you’re careless, your invitation to the ball can go missing.