The drama of Italian football

ITALY are out of the World Cup and won’t be in the finals for the second consecutive competition. In this age of 32-team formats, it does seem very hard not to qualify, so Italy’s failure is all the more humbling for one of the homes of football. One of Europe’s top five football countries-  and four times World champions – have come up short once more, losing in dramatic circumstances to North Macedonia.

England know all about the pain of failing to qualify, but there are not too many around who remember the period between 1970 and 1982 when the three lions were more like three blind mice. When England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the quarter final of the Mexico World Cup in June 1970, they had to wait until 1982 for their next World Cup tie. 

The intervening period saw careers rise and fall, players like Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon, Martin Chivers, Trevor Brooking and Roy McFarland and Colin Todd. A whole generation of England internationals was deprived of the chance to play in football’s greatest boy scout jamboree when they were at their peak.

A World Cup without Italy is almost unthinkable, especially as they are the reigning European champions. But it’s not the first time that the winners of the Euros have fallen in the qualifying stages of the World Cup: Czechoslavakia (1978), Denmark (1994) and Greece (2006) have all gone missing after winning the continental prize two years earlier. In the reverse situation (World Cup winners attempting to make the cut for Europe), Italy in 1984 were the only champions (1982) who lost their momentum. 

Italy’s defeat in the play-off was certainly unexpected, but their decline has been a slow burner and hasn’t been without its high points. Any other nation would be delighted with their record in the 21st century: one World Cup win (2006) and one European Championship success (2020), along with two Euro finals (2000 and 2012).

And while two successive blanks in the current World Cup format looks dreadful, other major nations have missed out on two consecutive finals, including Spain (1970 and 1974), Netherlands (1982 and 1986), France (1990 and 1994) and Portugal (1990, 1994 and 1998).

Doubtless, the post-mortem will go on for some time in Italy, the media are quite unforgiving and the future of coach Roberto Mancini has to be in some doubt. Despite votes for confidence for Mancini from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, the 37 year-old central defender, and the president of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriela Gravina, the press have already lined-up possible replacements. World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and Marcello Lippi have all been listed. 

Mancini, understandably, was crestfallen after North Macedonia’s win, apologising to the nation. He still has his supporters, though, and will long be credited with rebuilding the national team and few would deny the Azzurri deserved to win Euro 2020. Italy enjoyed a 37-game unbeaten run that was ended by Spain in the UEFA Nations League semi-final, but they rebounded well from that setback.

Why Italy didn’t win their play-off semi-final is a mystery, they enjoyed 66% possession and had 32 shots to their opponents’ four. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s 23 year-old goalkeeper, has come in for criticism and he’s had a bad month, being on the end of Paris Saint-Germain’s capitulation in the UEFA Champions League. But Italy’s problem is clearly at the opposite end of the pitch, they have scored 13 goals in their last 10 games, but five of those came in a victory against Lithuania. At the same time, they have conceded just seven goals in 10. Bizarrely, Italy were unbeaten in the qualifying group, but drew four of their eight games, again emphasising their lack of firepower.

With the World Cup now a dead duck, Italy have to look to the future. The days of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne and one or two others are surely over. After their revival last year in Euro 2020, Italy should have had the wake-up call they needed, but this defeat is something of a second wave, and frankly, it is easier for a big nation to qualify for the World Cup than it was 30 or 40 years ago. They will be foolish to ignore how and why this has happened.

Italia’s lament – a warning for the complacent

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Photo: PA

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.