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On Monday night, Italy failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958 after defeat to Sweden over two legs (1-0 on aggregate). The full-time whistle was met by groans, tears, uproar and the sight of young Italian hopefuls knowing they’d missed a chance at a World Cup, ending Gianluigi Buffon’s international career with it. The night was labelled a tragic one for Italian football and Italy as a nation, as politics and football have overlapped so often over the course of this great nations history. A national failure though? I’m not so sure.
Italy’s failure to qualify highlights a great flaw found in tournament football, as well as European football itself. Through TV rights, sponsorship and money in the game, everyone demands more and more. The ‘Champions League’ markets itself as the premium competition that everyone strives to compete for, though in reality it’s representation is a lie until you hit the later rounds, usually not seeing real quality till the quarter-finals. The competitions willingness to include more teams, especially those from lesser established footballing nations, only declines the quality and meaning of what it is to play in this competition, and sprinkles the group stages with 5-0/6-0 score-lines that simply don’t satisfy the neutrals desire for top level football. Great clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool enter the Europa League thinking ‘well, at least we have a chance of winning this one’.
Russia 2018 will play host to Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Panama, whilst the four-time World Cup winning nation will watch the tournament from home. The qualification process has been this way for a long time, and Italy have suffered their fate through their results, though there is no doubt that whilst a World Cup is meant to host the greatest teams in International Football, it’s let down by a qualifying system that allows for a decline in quality by spreading representation amongst the continents, meaning the European sides have a much harder route to World Cup football, emphasised by Italy falling second in their group to one of the greatest International sides of the modern game – Spain.
Italy’s points tally of 23 is still an exceptional return in reality, with that points tally finishing them top of group A (ahead of France), D and I, and finishing second in every other group apart from group B. Wales themselves suffered just one defeat across the qualifying campaign, and after a tremendous effort at the Euros, a growing footballing nation will miss out because the qualifying system says so, allowing for far less footballing developed countries to take part. Whilst the exposure is superb for these countries, and this system perhaps promotes a degree of ‘fairness’, the quality of this competition takes a huge hit, just as the Champions League opening stages have since its style change from the European Cup, which hosted the champions of each nation and no-one else. The Euro’s has also suffered with a new 32-team system absolutely killing group stage football, with teams knowing that three draws in your opening three games is statistically enough to see you through to the knock-out stage.
Was Monday’s result truly a footballing upset? I’ve witnessed some footballing upsets in my life and I can’t say this was up there. Whilst the Italian nation, heavily invested in football and carrying a huge degree of pride for its national team, will undoubtedly feel broken by its countries failed attempts to reach the World Cup, I can’t say Sweden were necessarily an obvious victory from the get-go. Sweden themselves have been an ever present nation at major tournaments, reaching 8 out of 9 major tournaments since 2000. To have either team not competing at the tournament would be a major upset, though granted, more so for Italian football. The Swedes boast a lot of young talent, and always put their opponents through their paces, demonstrated several years back in their 3-2 defeat to England in qualifying at Euro 2012, and their sturdy, robust performance against the four-time champions on Monday night. This was quite simply never a guaranteed result for the Azzurri.
Where does this leave Italian football? The end of an era? For me, it’s the start of one. Football is all about results, but sometimes you have to take a step back, re-evaluate the situation, and continue working hard. Italy have and will always be a wonderfully talented footballing nation. Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Italian poet and writer, described Italy’s loss to Brazil at the 1970 World Cup final as ‘Brazil’s poetry defeating Italy’s prose’. In fact, Italy are a nation known for their defensive stability and organisation. However, a new crop of players are emerging and it’s giving Italy a new sense of identity that they are yet to truly embrace, but will do in the coming years.
The ‘poetry’ that Pasolini describes are seen in the likes of Daniele Rugani 23, Roberto Gagliardini 23, Jorginho 25, Alessandro Florenzi 26, Lorenzo Insigne 26, Federico Bernadeschi 23, Marco Verratti 25 and Andrea Belotti 23, not to mention Gianluigi Donnarumma who’s only 18. This current Italian squad has an average age of just 27, with a lot of the seniors players dragging the average age up expected to retire in the coming years; Andrea Barazgli 36, Gianluigi Buffon 39, Giorgio Chiellini 33, Marco Parolo 32. The Italy squad at Euro 2016 had an average age of 29, with most of the starting players above the age of 30; Gianluigi Buffon 38, Giorgio Chiellini 31, Thiago Motta 33, Andrea Barzagli 35, Daniele De Rossi 32, Emanuele Giaccherini 31.
Italian football is moving in the right direction. If not at International level quite yet, it certainly is at club level, with Napoli, Inter Milan and Roma starting to find their place again amongst the European heavyweights, having been dragged back up their by the success of Juventus in recent years. Juventus’ success has recreated a buzz in Series A and mega-money owners are returning to Italy to invest their money in these historic and great clubs. International football will reap the rewards of these investments and new-found excitement for Italian football in the coming years, and I’d bet it in the next 10 years, we’ll see Italy add another golden star to their shirt.