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.

Euro 2020: The result can be brushed aside, but worry about the reputational damage

NOBODY should be too surprised that the aftermath of the European Championship final descended into primitive times: the hospitals anticipated increased A&E traffic, people predicted “there will be all hell let loose” if England lost and you just knew that racism would come to the fore. 

In short, while Gareth Southgate’s team performed heroically throughout Euro 2020, the players, the nation (and humanity) were all let down by thousands of drunk, aggressive and racist fans.

We’ve seen it before, of course, one of our top sporting exports in the 1970s and 1980s was football violence,  but we assumed the worst had passed thanks to the gentrification of the game. But in the past five years, there has been a resurgence of ignorance, a rise in racism and anti-semitism, popular nationalism and, overwhelmingly, increased xenophobia. And there’s been more than a sprinkling of arrogance. We don’t need to dig too deeply to find the root cause, but it is fuelled and almost egged-on by certain toxic political elements. Football has always been vulnerable to be exploited by those that want to whip-up prejudice and bigotry.

As soon as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed their penalties, it was inevitable the blame for defeat would head their way. On the London Underground afterwards, black fans were attacked, while anyone Italian was under threat on their journey home from Wembley. So very disgusting, so very sad – but so very predictable.

We buried our heads in the sand for some years, believing racism was no longer a problem, but every now and then, an incident would be reported and we were always open-mouth horrified. But it really never went away, it was just beneath the surface, ignored and, often, played down by the media. We’ve had a series of wake-up calls and the whole “Black Lives Matter” campaign, which was jeered by a lot of fans, indicated something was very badly wrong. 

Dovetailing the racist element was the general behaviour in London during the hours leading to kick-off, with fans climbing on red buses, trashing the streets, sticking flares in their orifices and urinating in public, all of which points to a society with problems. Football just happens to be an outlet for it. Boris Johnson said they should be ashamed of themselves, but will they really care? And the storming of the Wembley gates? Have they learnt nothing from crowd disasters of the past? 

Do these people not realise that reacting in this way to defeat only makes the loss harder to take? In such circumstances, empathy and the spirit of “we’re in it together” is vital, but the way fans invariably respond to disappointment is to become angry and to seek a scapegoat. All the pre-match singing, all the fake affection and bonhomie, amounted to nothing. Football fans have always been fickle, but instead of venting their frustration, true football fans sympathise and console the vanquished, and real sportsmen and women congratulate the winners, not kick their fans.

For many years, UEFA and FIFA refused to award England a major competition. The events of July 11 2021 will probably set back the nation in terms of sporting credibility – England look like sore losers. Such a pity, as England’s young players performed very well and were the second best team in Europe – a status that should have kept their runners-up medals around their necks. Right now, the fans involved in this debacle should ask themselves, what did they really do for their country?

@GameofthePeople

Euro 2020: England must beware the pressure of playing mine host

IT HAS been 37 years since a host nation won the European Championship, a golden tournament that witnessed Michel Platini stand imperiously astride the continent with a highly seductive France side. England, the de facto hosts of Euro 2020, have the chance to do likewise, but it won’t be easy – hosts don’t often prosper in this competition.

England’s trump card (we really need to replace that description) is not so much home status, but the partisan audience that has come out of hiding in recent weeks. We’ve become unaccustomed to the sound of the crowd over the past year and a half, but in the semi-final at Wembley, the noise was deafening, the intention unequivocal. The presence of spectators was almost unnerving and this could be turned to England’s advantage on July 11.

Never mind that the Euros may herald the beginning of another upturn in covid cases, if England win, it will be akin to uncorking a vigorously shaken-up bottle of sparkling wine. After 55 years of “hurt”, It could get out of control.

Perfect

England versus Italy is one of those finals that “perfect world” romantics often dream about. Along with England v Brazil and England v Germany, it ranks as one of those clashes the marketing department genuinely hope for. It will never be too arduous to sell England v Italy, but it might have been harder to sell Denmark v Spain or Denmark v Belgium. UEFA must be relieved that two blue riband nations are playing in the final.

But England have to beware. The last two hosts to reach the final have both been beaten – Portugal in 2004 and France in 2016. Only three times have hosts won the Henri Delaunay Trophy: Spain in 1964, Italy in 1968 and France 1984. If you consider Europe’s big five leagues to be England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, then the Euro final has featured big five derbies four times in the past: 1984 (France v Spain); 2000 (France v Italy); 2008 (Spain v Germany); and 2012 (Spain v Italy). 

On the face of it, this is a tight final, although England will be favourites with many people. In competitive games over the past two tournaments (World Cup 2018/Euro 2020) and their qualifiers, Italy have a win rate of 78.57% and England 76.7%. Italy have played 28 games, despite being absent at the World Cup in Russia, and England have played 30. In total, Italy, under Roberto Mancini, have embarked on an unbeaten run of more than 30 games.

England have the advantage of younger legs. Of the Italian starting XI that won the semi-final,  four were 30 or over. Admittedly, players like Giorgio Chiellini are polished veterans, but England’s only 30-something was Kyle Walker, and he’s still got muscle and speed. Italy have played almost all of their 26-man squad at some stage, goalkeeper Alex Meret is the only member of the party not have been fielded for at least five minutes. England, meanwhile, have used 21 of their 26 players with six starting every game compared to just three Italian ever-presents.

England will also be favourites because they have the most valuable squad. According to Transfermarkt, the entire England squad is valued at over £ 1 billion, while Italy’s is £ 676 million. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount were already among the most coveted players in Europe, but to that list Bukayo Saka will surely be added after Euro 2020. Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden may get their chance next year in Qatar, but they have been used sparingly. For Italy, more people now know about Nicoló Barella, Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne and Leonardo Spinazzola. 

Confidence

In the back of Gareth Southgate’s mind must surely be the knowledge that England rarely beat Italy in serious matches. In fact, their only victory in competitive action was in 1977 when England won 2-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier. Times have changed since Italy’s defence-minded approach would intimidate opponents, but it does seem as though the “Azzurri” are in the ascendancy once more. But then so are England, who have found the recipe to tournament management. It has been a long time coming, but the strength of the unit is there for all to see. 

So too is the team’s confidence and ability to surge forward. Sterling and Saka seem to scare the living daylights out of defenders, if only for their habit of inviting costly challenges. And at corners and free-kicks, the leaping brick wall that is Harry Maguire appears to win everything. 

Southgate seems to have found a similar kind of “men for the job” approach that served Sir Alf Ramsey so well in 1966. Not everyone would have selected Maguire, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Raheem Sterling, but Southgate has resisted the call for popular choices like Grealish and Foden to rely on those he trusts the most. Like Ramsey, he has seen his team improve as the competition has progressed, shrugging aside the sceptics. And like Ramsey, he could be invited to the Palace when it is all over. Buckingham, that is.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy