Italy is waking up to the realisation that the World Cup will go ahead without them. So what went wrong?
“I’m upset because tonight I understood the significance of coaching the national team,” said Gian Piero Ventura. It is a little late for that. Indeed, the comment is only likely to rile the coach’s critics further after Ventura presided over Italy’s first failure to reach the World Cup finals in 60 years. But how did it come to this?
Right from the moment that the groups were drawn in Saint Petersburg back in July 2015 there was unease. While Wales and Romania were in pot one, despite not having even reached a World Cup for what is now a combined total of 78 years, the 2006 winners of the tournament were down in pot two due to their poor FIFA ranking.
Gianluigi Buffon apologised to fans after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup
It left them vulnerable and those fears were realised when they were drawn against Spain – a team that has still not lost a World Cup qualifier since 1993. Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio even complained to his FIFA counterpart Gianni Infantino that risking Italy’s World Cup place went “against the story” of the tournament.
Predictably, Spain got the better of Italy and forced the Azzurri into a play-off against Sweden. But without star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who retired after Euro 2016, the well-organised but merely functional Swedes should have been beatable over three hours of football. Ventura’s Italy could not even score a goal.
The 69-year-old’s tactics have been widely criticised. Perceived as a safe bet after the intensity of Antonio Conte’s Italy reign, Ventura has proved anything but. A long career spent managing lower-ranking clubs did not prepare the veteran for coaching his country and he never truly hit upon the best system for this group of players.
Wedded to his 3-5-2 formation, Ventura put his trust in his old Torino forwards Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti for much of the qualifying campaign. But while Immobile, in particular, remains in fine form, having scored 18 goals in 15 games for Lazio this season, he has not been able to score in his last five appearances for Italy.
The faith in the front two meant no place for Napoli’s wide forward Lorenzo Insigne, regarded by many as the best Italian player in Serie A right now. After being used out of position in a central role during the miserable first leg in Stockholm, Insigne was left on the bench on Monday night even as Italy headed for the exit.
Fellow substitute Daniele De Rossi has since made headlines after seeming to urge the coaching staff to put Insigne on. “There’s little to say,” said De Rossi afterwards. “Unfortunately there will be a lot of time to analyse it. The only thing I can say is that we showed few ideas and not much in the way of tactics.”
While many in Italy share the World Cup winner’s frustration, the lack of belief in Ventura’s work is telling – perhaps an inevitable consequence of the gulf in top-level experience between the squad’s senior players and their managers. Italy’s veterans appeared compelled to take matters into their own hands but how helpful was their influence?
Highlights of Italy's second-leg failure to get past Sweden at the San Siro
Seven of the starting line-up for the first game against Sweden were over the age of 30. Four of them, the World Cup winning quartet of De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini are all over the age of 33. Some will be inclined to feel that a more powerful coach might have freshened things up earlier.
All of which adds to a sense of finality about this Italy. An era is over. As the cover of Gazzetta dello Sport read on Tuesday morning, fine, the end. Inside, this failure is described as the apocalypse. The sight of a crying Buffon departing the San Siro will linger in the memory, but this is also the opportunity for rebirth. Italian football is far from dead.
Gianluigi Donnarumma is ready and waiting to step up, while a plethora of young defenders have already been held back too long. Marco Verratti, suspended for the second leg against Sweden, can carry this team forwards from midfield and the forwards have time and their side with Federico Bernardeschi set for more opportunities.
Of course, now is not the time for such optimism. Italy is waking up to the realisation that football’s grandest showpiece – a competition they have won four times with only Brazil being crowned champions on more occasions – will go ahead without them for the first time in six decades. Ventura can hardly fail to note the significance of that.