New Delhi: Italy’s failure to ensure World Cup qualification for the first time in 60 years has sent the football world into shock and signalled the exit of the remaining veterans of the generation that won the 2006 World Cup.
Veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, the most capped player in the history of the Italian national team with 175 international matches under his belt, bid a tearful farewell to a distinguished career even as his team mates collapsed in bitter disappointment all around him following a goalless draw against Sweden in the second leg of their play-off tie in Milan on Monday evening.
“We have pride, strength and we’re stubborn. We know how to get back up again as we’ve always done. I’m leaving an Italy side that will know how to speak for itself. Hugs to everyone, especially those I’ve shared this wonderful journey with,” Buffon was quoted as saying by the official Twitter handle of the Italian football federation.
“I’m not sorry for myself but all of Italian football. We failed at something which also means something on a social level. There’s regret at finishing like that, not because time passes,” he added.
Crowned World Cup champions four times, Italy have appeared in every edition of the tournament except for 1958 — when they did not qualify — and the very first tournament in 1930, in which they declined to take part.
Winners of the title in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, Italy are among the favourites in every World Cup.
Experienced defender Andrea Barzagli, one Buffon’s teammates from the 2006 World Cup campaign, also announced his international retirement immediately after Monday’s match.
That leaves veteran central defender Giorgio Chiellini — Barzagli’s partner at the heart of the Italian defence — and defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi as the only surviving members of the 2006 victorious squad.
Aged 33 and 34 respectively, the international careers of Chiellini and De Rossi are also on their last legs.
The world media reacted in shock to the news with several of them calling for the immediate sacking of Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura.
German publication Bild carrying an image of Buffon praying to the heavens on its front page with the headline “A World Cup without Italy”.
“The news is hardly credible, the quadruple world champions, Italy, will not be at the World Cup next summer,” wrote French publication L’Équipe.
“The causes of this cataclysm are numerous, and the head of coach Gian Piero Ventura — who is one of them – should roll in the next few hours.”
Calling the result an ‘apocalypse’ Spanish daily Marca criticised Ventura for being unable to give a tactical identity to the Italian team.
“Incredible, a World Cup without Italy!” it declared on its front page.
There were several factors that contributed to Italy’s doomed World Cup qualification campaign. Finishing second behind formidable Spain in Group G, the Italians had to get the better of Sweden in a two-legged play-off to book their tickets to next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Traditionally a defensive, counter-attacking team, Sweden has suffered from a lack of firepower in their forward line ever since former star Zlatan Imrahimovic announced his international retirement after Euro 2016.
However, Italy proved unable to overcome their modest opponents, going down 0-1 in the first leg before the 0–0 result in the second leg at the San Siro in Milan consigned them to a 0-1 aggregate defeat.
Ventura’s 3-5-2 formation was clearly not suitable for this group of Italian players. The strike duo of Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti — who have played together under Ventura at Torino — were not up to the task.
Immobile has been in superb form at the club level, scoring 18 goals in 15 games for Lazio, but has not been able to score in his last five appearances for Italy.
Lorenzo Insigne, who has been in excellent form for Napoli in the Serie A, has been under-utilised throughout the qualifying campaign.
A wide forward, he has placed in an unfamiliar central position during the first leg against Sweden in Stockholm and was placed on the substitutes’ bench in the second leg.
The midfield also showed a disappointing lack of creativity. As a result, the traditional Italian style of employing a creative playmaker as a linkman between the midfield and forwardline was conspicious by its absence.
Having spent a major part of his coaching career managing the smaller teams in the Serie A, Ventura was clearly unused to handling the pressure of handling the Italian national team. His lack of experience at the top level cost Italy dearly in the end.
The 2018 World Cup will be a poorer spectacle without Italy, the second most successful team in the tournamnent’s history alongside Germany. Only Brazil have won more titles.
The story of the FIFA World Cup is incomplete without the countless talented genarations of players clad in the fame Azzuri jersey.
The disappointment and humiliation must spur on the Italian players and their federation to regroup and prepare for the future. The world of football will be watching with bated breath.