Italy has failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, but the result may not come as a surprise to those who have been watching the Azzurri in recent years.
Italy did not go to the World Cup in 1930. They did not qualify for the World Cup in 1958. And they will not be at the World Cup in 2018. The four-time champion is out, beaten 1-0 over two legs by Sweden and left to wonder what on earth has gone wrong. For the 39-year-old Gianluigi Buffon, playing what was almost certainly his final international, it was a terrible way to bow out.
Perhaps there was an element of misfortune. Italy was unfortunate to be drawn in a group with Spain when they might have got Romania or Wales. They were unfortunate having finished second to Spain to then draw probably the most impressive of the non-seeded second-place sides. And they will point to individual moments of misfortune in the game: the elbow on Leonardo Bonucci in the first leg that might have earned Ola Toivonen a first-minute red card; the deflected Jakob Johansson shot that brought the only goal; the string of saves made by the Sweden keeper Robin Olsen; the two penalties they might have won in the second leg.
But the truth is that Sweden probably also should have had two penalties and that, for most of the second half, Italy lost their shape and discipline and as a result failed to take advantage of the way they dominated possession. In the fraught final minutes there were too many long balls, too much that was hit hopefully into vaguely dangerous areas, too little class, too little precision.
And the truth also is that this set-back is a surprise but not a shock. There will be those who blame the federation for not gaming the system – as Romania, Wales and Poland have done – to secure a better ranking. There will be those who blame the manager Gian Piero Ventura and ask why somebody of such modest achievements should have been appointed in the first place. They will have a point. But the biggest issue by far is the players. There was a general consensus that the Italy squad that went to Euro 2016 was the weakest that had ever gone to a tournament; only the alchemic intensity of Antonio Conte dragged them to a quarter-final.
But it’s no coincidence that Ventura picked seven starting players aged 30 or more for the first leg in Stockholm; four of them 33 or older. There were only six who started the second leg but the point remains. This is an ageing side and the main reason for that is a dearth of emerging talent.
Perhaps Ventura could have been bolder in his choices. Jorginho, who has been excellent of late for Napoli, only made his competitive debut in Milan on Tuesday, and was probably Italy’s most creative player, certainly before halftime. His non-selection for so long has been baffling as Italy have struggled. Ventura is equally sure to be criticized as well for not introducing Lorenzo Insigne from the bench against Sweden.
Yet really to talk about the game against Sweden is to miss the bigger picture. It wasn’t just that Italy finished behind Spain, it was that they were hammered by them in Madrid. In Paris last summer, Conte’s Italy had pummeled Spain in the last 16 of the Euros and won 2-0. Two and half months later the sides met in Turin and drew 1-1. Then in September this year they met in Madrid and Spain humiliated Italy, winning 3-0 when it could have been far more. Conte had shown how effective a back three can be against Spain; Xavi had spoken of the problems Spain always had against that shape. Yet Ventura played a 4-2-4 and Spain dominated utterly through midfield.
It was not just that game, though. They struggled to a 1-1 draw against FYR Macedonia. They scraped a 1-0 win over Israel at home. Throw it back further and there have been draws in friendlies in the past five years against Haiti and Luxembourg. Italy may have a point about the iniquities of the FIFA rankings but if no side can expect much sympathy with that sort of result.
Assuming they qualify in 2022, Italy will head to Qatar having won only one match at a World Cup finals since they lifted the trophy in 2006. This is a failure that has been brewing or years. Ventura must take his share of the blame of course, and he has seemed a broken man since that defeat in Madrid, unable to rouse his players, panicking in his selections to such an extent that he fielded 25 players over the final three group games as he desperately sought a successful formula.
But there is also something wrong in the Italian system. Gifted young players are not emerging in sufficient quantity, are not being developed. Germany, France and England have all undergone awkward reassessments of their youth structures; Italy must undergo a similar reboot. No side of Italy’s stature should be reliant on a team of creaking 30-somethings. Conte papered over the cracks, but under Ventura that covering fell away, exposing the crevices beneath.