A failure to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since the late 1950s has seen the nation of Italy go into a frenzy of finger-pointing and fury
The apocalypse has arrived in Italy.
At least for a country of 50 million people who live and breath football. Italy will not be at the next World Cup, missing out for the first time since 1958. It is devastating for Italians, but it is the result of a footballing movement that has been slowly sinking over the past 20 years, with an orchestra that kept on playing in a Titanic-esque fashion, trying to cover the dark holes.
A premise is needed: even the worst Italy in history should be able to score against and qualify ahead of this Sweden team. A mediocre side, albeit well organised. And of course – as always in football – the result of a single game can lead to vast judgements and complex consequences. Winning would not have made a difference, nonetheless, on the overall situation of Italian football.
Oggi sulla #Gazzetta ⚽ FINE Italia senza Mondiale dopo 60 anni ⚽ L'editoriale: Tutti a casa, si riparte così ⚽ Analisi, numeri e approfondimenti del flop azzurro.
In regalo @ETGazzetta ⚽ Simeone-Pochettino, derby dal sapore argentino, sabato Atletico-Real e Arsenal-Tottenham. pic.twitter.com/tJt8Z7MJZP
— LaGazzettadelloSport (@Gazzetta_it) November 14, 2017
The triumph in Berlin in 2006 covered up the biggest scandal arguably in the history of the beautiful game. “Calciopoli”, a story of match-fixing involving major Italian clubs was the tip of an iceberg showing how rotten Italian football had become. Politics and personal interests over everything that a sport should be. Yet, many people saw that win as a sign that things were still good enough. What a mistake.
Whilst nothing changed at a club level – apart from sanctions for the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and the rest after Calciopoli – Serie A continued its deterioration, whilst Italy were knocked out of Euro 2008 by Spain, then failed to get past the group stages in South Africa in 2010, reaching a historical low.
The Champions League victories for AC Milan in 2007 and Inter in 2010 again covered up a situation that continued, with Italy finalists at Euro 2012 (only to be the victim of the worst loss in a European Championships final) and then deja-vu in the 2014 World Cup group stages with another early exit.
Juventus reaching two Champions League finals in three years may reflect a Serie A recovery, but the truth is the gap between the top clubs and the rest is almost embarrassing. Right now the difference has never been so clear, and this kills development of young players, development of young Italian talent: the food needed to see a national team grow.
The great performances at Euro 2016 show the difference a coach – Antonio Conte – can make on any team. And Italy continues to produce arguably the best coaches in the world. Who, in their own interests, and rightly so, would not prefer to manage abroad, earning higher wages, having less pressure and able to work with the best players in the world. Serie A and the Italian national team would be a step back for many.
Conte, when leaving the Italy job after the 2016 Euros, made it clear that the main reason for his departure was the lack of change by the Federation. No investment in youth systems, no planning, no future. A year later, this Italy side will not be at the Russia World Cup. And trust me, it is not just a sporting apocalypse, but a disaster for the country’s economy and social stability. As many say, football mirrors the situation of the nation. Italy are in difficult times, and so are the Azzurri. May this be the lowest low ever, and the fuel for regeneration. Or else the limbo of mediocrity will be the future.