They are 4 times world champions, ‘the Azzurris’’, football ‘Royale’’ …6 times finalists who will not be making an appearance in Mother Russia come 2018, after a second leg goal-less draw against Sweden. The atmosphere in the San siro was palpable, tension soaked, due to the enormity of what was at stake. And oh! Yes, their worst fears came to pass.
Sweden came into this encounter on the back of a lone goal aggregate lead at friends’ arena, in Solna. Any neutral who did not see both matches, especially the first leg, would want to believe that Sweden were lucky. Take nothing away from this Swedish side – without the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic, arguably the greatest player to come out of Scandinavian shores; is a monumental achievement. To put into proper perspective, they were grouped alongside football super powers France and Netherlands. The media might point to Piero Ventura’s tactics and selections as the reason Italy failed to make it to the world cup, but how can we ignore the narrative of Janne Andersson’s coaching? The Swede coach has successfully strung together a young tactically disciplined team, well organised, difficult to break down and good going forward. They beat France in the qualifiers and knocked out Netherlands, for those that might not remember. We are talking about countries that share 5 World Cup trophies and over 20 appearances in World Cup finals.
The naivety and incompetence displayed by Gian Piero Ventura calls for an inquisition. Ungrateful as the Italians were, they berated a certain Antonio Conte for calling up players like Giaccherrini, then with Sunderland batting relegation, Eder of Inter Milan, who was not participating in the crème de la crème of European football (Champions League) or was it Graziano Pelle of Southampton. What they failed to realise or appreciate was that Conte’s team beat La Roja of Spain, same people that pushed them into the paly-offs round. Like they say, you don’t know what you have, until you lose it. A team with top quality and experienced players in the mould of Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli, De Rossi, plying his trade in Roma, the quartet of Bonucci, Chiellini, Barzagli and Buffon- having amassed in excess of 250 caps between them in national colours, not qualifying is a travesty.
Ventura turned the team into a revolving door of sort, chopping and changing all through the qualifiers; one could hardly recognise the Italians. Known for their catenaccio style of football, the defence leaked goals, the midfield couldn’t string passes together, no cohesive play and the attack was blunt – the team simply lost its identity. Jorginho’s impact was there for all to see, on making his debut, sitting on the bench all through, makes you wonder what exactly Ventura was thinking. Reports have it that after the first leg away to Sweden, the senior members of the team (the quartet), went to Ventura and expressed their dissatisfaction on tactics and formations, asking for changes to be made, but Gian Piero on his part refused to listen. He started the match with the in-form Lorenzo Insigne, El Shaarawy and Andrea Belotti on the side line. What a statement. Maybe all this could explain why Danielle De Rossi refused to warm up when he was told to get ready, recognising that, what his side needed at that point was not him – exactly what you get from a 117 caps, BRAVE!
The Italians known to divide opinions, loved and hated in equal measure, will be left to rue missing the world cup, as the ‘luck of the draws’ deserted them.
There will also be this perspective that FIFA‘s system of ranking did contribute to this fall out. In previous World Cups, partial seeding was used – only one team from the 6 regional confederates was seeded, except UEFA who had two teams and the host countries. The European last round of group stage qualifiers ended in October, few days before the rankings used, were announced. Play-offs in Europe and final qualifying matches in Africa took place this November. The conundrum is why use the rankings of October, when these afore mentioned matches could have helped to improve or reduce the ranking of teams. The group stage draws date is December, what’s the hurry?
Unfair it seems, as teams do manipulate rankings by avoiding friendlies, especially those ones they might lose, which is a disincentive to playing quality international opponents. These rankings fuse into qualifications and seeding. If the Italians had played more friendlies and were not seeded second, they would definitely not have been morphed together with Spain, which ultimately condemned them to the play-offs. Should we hold the FIGC responsible for this, or maybe the coach did not make the necessary request in this case. We don’t know, but what we do know is that they appointed a coach with no major trophies and honours, knowing the pedigree of Italy in football. Ventura has been around yes, but he could not get Torino to Champions league spot in his 5 year spell there. FIGC can make excuses that Carlo Ancelotti and Claudio Ranieri weren’t available, yet they refused Roberto Mancini, who was available and desired the job.
Even though FIFA has come out to say it would have another look at the ranking system, when the 2018 World Cup qualifiers are concluded- to see if there can be amendments, but it’s obviously too late for Italy, who broke their 60 year record of successive World Cup appearances. It begs to say that many generations of Italians do not know what a World Cup tournament without Italy really feels like.
Sad days for them, but ruin is the only road to redemption. As the dust and enormity of last night events settle, let it be known that there’s no better time than now, to start afresh, maybe it was a long time coming- exited at the group stages both in 2010 and 2014 World Cups, they are due for massive changes and surely has earned a ‘bad day’ at the office. Who said Italy cannot win the 2022 World Cup, if they prepare well. They have loads of talented youth coming through their system at the moment. Renowned for always coming back stronger from failings, the world should watch out for the next instalment of the ‘Italian job’.
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featured image credit The Sun