As a star studded cast gathered to their seats in Moscow for the prestigious World Cup draw on December 1, the realisation of Italy’s failure to qualify had still yet to completely process in the arena.
The Azzurri, along with fellow superpowers Germany and Brazil, are expected to be at every major tournament. It’s a given, and qualification is a minimum requirement. The four-time winners have always been in the reckoning for honours but will have to accept their position on the sidelines this summer. To add insult to injury, there is a real possibility Joachim Low’s men take sole position as Europe’s most successful World Cup nation and move ahead with five triumphs.
The common perception is the 2006 victors blew their hopes of competing in Russia after the damaging 3-0 defeat against Spain at Santiago Bernabeu in September, but anyone who has avidly watched the Azzurri over the last decade will admit the current cycle only had one outcome. As Fabio Cannavaro, the man who lifted the trophy, eloquently put it: “It wasn’t just about one game or a tactical issue. I think this is a defeat that was 10 years in the making and we’ve got to start from scratch.”
The alarm bells have been ringing ever since Fabio Grosso’s decisive penalty in Berlin more than a decade ago. In the two subsequent editions, Italy won one out of six opening stage matches, including a bottom place finish in the tournament defending their crown in a group consisting of minnows New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay. The champions were expected to be largely untroubled but this turned in to a sobering experience for Marcello Lippi, who came under intense scrutiny despite his exploits four years previously.
Lippi was loyal and his selection was by and large the men who had secured glory in Germany or experienced hands who could be relied upon. There was a refusal to freshen things up, and to put in to context, Leonardo Bonucci was the youngest member of the travelling party at 23-years-old. There was no succession plan in place for the next generation, instead relying on the old guard that had already reached its peak in 2006. Four years later, and the inevitable drop off in performance resulted in grave embarrassment and Italy have continued to go backwards.
Elsewhere, Die Mannschaft had six stars integrated in to the senior squad after the 2009 European Under-21 Championship and the likes of Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil are now bona fide stars with nearly a decade of international experience each and winners of football’s ultimate prize.
Domestically, the national side has not been helped, and Inter are the most negligible. The Nerazzurri seldom have more than one Italian in the starting line-up. Champions Juventus, who consistently and proudly started with at least half a team of native players have now disregarded this tradition and chances are found wanting at the prominent sides. The platform is no longer there and the fantasy positions, such as the No 10 and striker, are occupied by imports.
Federico Bernardeschi, who forced through a move to bitter rivals Juventus from Fiorentina has spent the campaign warming the bench, lucky to make a cameo appearance here and there. The wide man should be featuring week in, week out and his natural development is suffering as a result. The former Viola starlet is understandably short of confidence and has lost the spark which secured his big transfer.
The division must have a duty of care to their prodigious youngsters and ensure they get valuable game time if sent out on loan. As an example, the Bianconeri-owned Golden Boot winner at the Under-20 World Cup Riccardo Orsolini is currently at Atalanta and has barely featured. The left-footer is unique in the Italian game, a genuine out-and-out winger with pace to burn but is another prospect suffering due to lack of minutes.
Perhaps the most damning statistic is not one Italian striker is plying their trade in the Champions League this year. This is a far cry for a country that has produced Alessandro Del Piero, Pippo Inzaghi, Luca Toni and Francesco Totti all in the same era. Italy no longer have a dazzling creator that makes something happen in the ilk of the Divine Ponytail Roberto Baggio.
Another well documented belief behind the current malaise is the infamous Calciopoli match-fixing scandal which shocked Italian football to its core. Juventus were hit the hardest, with the country’s biggest club demoted to Serie B in the 2006-07 term. Old Lady legend and talisman Del Piero alluded to the knock-on effect this damaging saga caused. “It was like an atomic bomb: our football broke down,” he recalled. “After that, the great champions went abroad and the other countries have grown exponentially.” The advantage Italy had over rivals Spain, France and Germany had quickly eroded away, and it’s the Azzurri who have been playing catch up ever since.
The failure to progress to June’s showpiece event began when ex-FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio appointed close friend Gian Piero Ventura to the hot seat, and the pair heavily contributed to a 60-year tradition coming to an end. Collectively, the duo were out of touch and too stubborn to admit their shortcomings. Simply, the role was beyond a journeyman whose career high was taking Torino to seventh place in the table.
The veteran is now infamous for all the wrong reasons and his insistence to play 4-2-4 away in Madrid proved fatal. This was a setup not one player was accustomed to at club level and the final scoreline ended predictably. Ventura displayed his lack of credentials and Italy were outclassed, outthought and utterly shell-shocked.
Tactically, the Group G runners-up were short in qualification, but this could have easily been avoided if the Genoa born boss followed the path of the two outstandingly attack-minded sides in the country, Napoli and Roma, with the former’s diminutive Lorenzo Insigne an obvious inclusion along with teammate Jorginho. The two Partenopei icons are in the form of their lives but Insigne stayed on the bench as Italy toiled in the second-leg against a workmanlike Sweden, while playmaker Jorginho was belatedly given his debut in the most difficult of circumstances.
Manolo Gabbiadini, who has a meagre two international goals to his name, was tasked with firing the side to the World Cup and this highlighted the lack of star quality Italy have upfront. The Southampton forward has not once hit double figures in a League season and in 180 minutes of action, the Azzurri never looked capable of scoring.
Six of the XI who took to the field in the deciding clash were 30 or older and the inability to integrate youth has proved costly. Andrea Barzagli’s initial retirement came in 2015 and the defender was adamant it was the right choice for Italy’s future: “I’ll leave the Azzurri after the Euros. It’s right to give younger players a chance.”
The stalwart made his decision but Ventura persuaded him to make a U-turn, rather than blood the talented Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani. Italy have lost 24 months of growth and the accomplished centre-backs will now be thrown in to the firing line with no Giorgio Chiellini or Daniele De Rossi to guide them.
Nevertheless, there is hope and Italy do have a gifted group of players to build around. This great footballing nation will need time, but the early aim must be to reach Euro 2020 and then re-emerge as a force of the game.