Italy has missed the World Cup.
Let’s let that sink in for a minute.
Italy, gli Azzurri, the four-time World Cup Champions, have MISSED the World Cup.
One of the World’s most historic footballing nations, home of countless legends, will not be participating in Russia 2018.
Italy, headed by Gian Piero Ventura (more on him later), stumbled through the qualifying process to get to the World Cup. Based on their FIFA rankings, Italy were put in Pot 2, and drawn into group G with Spain, Albania, Israel, Liechtenstein, and Macedonia. While in a group with the mighty Spain, you cannot look me in the eye and tell me that Italy should have trouble with the likes of Albania, Israel, Liechtenstein, and Macedonia.
On paper, they didn’t. Italy beat Israel 3-1, then drew Spain 1-1, thanks to a late penalty from Daniele De Rossi. They squeaked past Macedonia 3-2 with a goal from Ciro Immobile in the 92’. Then they took down Liechtenstein 4-0, and Albania 2-0. Italy then topped Liechtenstein 5-0, then fell to Spain in an embarrassing 3-0 loss. This is where it starts coming off the rails a bit. Their next match was at home against Israel, which they won 1-0 thanks to Immobile in the 53’. They then drew Macedonia 1-1, and eked out a win against Albania.
Funny enough, Immobile was the group’s leading scorer with six goals. But Italy’s stumbling to the finish line, with no indication they could compete with Spain, did not inspire confidence.
Ventura, the manager of Italy appointed after the departure of Antonio Conte, showed a startling lack of innovation and inspiration, especially towards the end of the cycle. There was a strange refusal to bring in Jorginho until it was do-or-die for Italy, in the UEFA World Cup Qualifying Playoffs against Sweden.
Sweden was one of the trickier draws that Italy could have had in the Playoff Draw, instead of Ireland, Northern Ireland, or Greece. They are a more physically imposing team than the Azzurri, and they use their physicality to their advantage. They had a distinct identity and style, which is something that Italy lacked. Italy had no distinct playing style: while Conte stuck with the 3-5-2, Ventura would not decide on a consistent formation. Sometimes there was a 3-5-2, and sometimes, like against Spain, there was a questionable 4-2-4.
Italy had a dreadful first half against Sweden in Stockholm, where Sweden dominated the play, but Italy had the better chance or two and failed to capitalize. They came out firing in the second half, but gave up a goal that went past Gigi Buffon off a deflection. Then, Italy failed to take advantage of any attacking chance, and dropped the first leg 1-0.
Jorginho watched the whole match from the bench; Lorenzo Insigne played just 15 minutes, as a midfielder; Stephen El Shaarawy watched the match from the stands. Marco Verratti got a yellow card and was therefore suspended for the second leg. Eder made an appearance as a sub.
The Azzurri then had one job: go to San Siro, a temple of European and Italian Football, and get a win (at least to go to extra time. Win by two goals and you’re in). Oh, and DO NOT GIVE UP A GOAL.
Spoiler alert, they failed.
Insigne never saw the pitch. Federico Bernardeschi entered for 15 minutes. Marco Parolo never left the game. Manolo Gabbiadini, after not seeing the pitch in the first match, started.
Italy had their chances, but the touches were not there for them. The creativity in the midfield became stagnant and repetitive. The team became desperate and, frankly, scared. The whistle blew, with the score 0-0, and Italy was knocked out of World Cup Contention.
Gigi Buffon, in tears in his post-match interview, apologized to the nation and retired from the national team. Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Daniele De Rossi also retired. Legends of the Azzurri, especially Buffon, gone into the exact opposite of the sunset that they deserved.
Who is to blame? There are some easy answers. Ventura had no creativity. The team selections were debatable, and the formations were questionable. He got in visible rows with his players: Graziano Pelle did not shake his hand, and was never called to the team again. When Insigne was subbed in as a midfielder, the “al centro, si“ video was born, where he acknowledged to his teammates how absurd that was. In the second leg, De Rossi was told to start warming up, and he gestured to Insigne and asked the assistant why he should start warming up, that Insigne should instead, because they need a WIN, not a DRAW.
Who is next? The players are definitely partially to blame. They did not produce when needed. They did not get the job done. There is a reason they are called to the national team: they produce with their clubs. They may have not been put in the best spot to succeed, but they did not prove themselves worthy of the World Cup. Their mentality was not there, and neither were the performances. Now, one of the greatest players of all time for Italy has gone out having played his last game missing the World Cup for the country’s first time since 1958.
You can also point to the higher-ups in the FIGC, for appointing Ventura and sticking with the same old system and allowing it to get to this point. If you want, you can also say there was some luck that didn’t go Italy’s way- they could have connected with a ball or two against Sweden. They could have not drawn Sweden. They could have not been in Spain’s group. But they were. And they didn’t get it done, and now the reality is that there will be no Italy in the World Cup.
Frankly, the shocking decisions of the manager have shamed the Azzurri shirt. The talent is there on this team. The roster is one of the most talented in years. Conte’s squad in Euro 2016, with Eder and Pelle up top and a midfield of Parolo, Emanuele Giaccherini, and Stefano Sturaro, beat Spain 2-0 and took Germany to Penalties in the Quarterfinals. There is no reason that this squad should have had the trouble it did. It comes down to the manager and the performance of the players, which were troubling and led to the consequences Italy are experiencing now.
It’s time for Italy to take a look at themselves and re-evaluate the system they have and the personnel they have in charge. Reports already have surfaced of talks with Carlo Ancelotti for the manager position, and AC Milan Legend Paolo Maldini has been linked to a position in the Federation. Only time, and the results, will tell, but first thing first: new manager, new administration. Get the players in a position to succeed. Turn it around.
Italy will be back. But for now, Italy sit in one of the darkest times in calcio since 1958.