Italy: The Arrival Of The Apocalypse
There are two sides to most people who watch football on a regular basis. On the one hand, we have to be ruthless pragmatists, in order to preserve our sanity if nothing else. We know that some players are better than others, that some teams are better than others, and that some teams can be either greater than or equal to the sum of their parts. It’s mechanical, in a sense. All footballers – and all football teams – are not created equal. On the other hand, though, we are fabulously flamboyant romantics. We love the idea of David delivering a thump on the nose upon Goliath, whilst we get misty-eyed at memories of players and matches of the past, of the complex narrative twists that the game takes over time. We eulogise, canonise and romanticise. We can’t help ourselves.
The current Italy team was always unlikely to set too many pulses racing. Their lopsided qualification group for the 2018 World Cup finals essentially came down to a two-legged match against Spain and a series of matches against Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein for which the objective was to scramble through without stepping on any land mines. The Italian team failed in both respects. Regarding the former, they could only manage one point from their two matches against Spain, requiring a late penalty to scramble a draw in Turin before being blown apart in Madrid in the return match. Against the flotsam and jetsam, two dropped points at home against Macedonia removed any significant debate from the question of which of the group’s two powerhouses would qualify to go to Russia automatically and and which would have to go through the play-offs.
This continues a recent theme of downward curve on the part of the Azzurri which has been ongoing since they last won the World Cup in 2006. Since last winning the tournament in 2006, Italy have played eight matches in the World Cup finals and have won just the once, against a dismal England team in Manaus in 2014. They’ve failed to get past the group stages at either of the last two tournaments, and now they’ve failed to reach the finals themselves. This death of glory has been a constituent part of Italian football before. Between winning the tournament in 1938 and reaching the final in 1970 Italy failed to get out the group stages of the tournament on four occasions and failed to qualify at all in 1958. It could be argued that, at the World Cup finals, Italy don’t just blow hot or cold. They either erupt like Vesuvius or freeze over completely. Despite better performances at the European Championships of late, the pragmatic, computational side of our football brains probably knows that this team had this coming.
We’re also, however, romantics, and the Savoia blue of Italy runs a strong seam through our collective World Cup consciousness. From The Battle of Santiago against Chile in 1962, through The Match of The Century in the Azteca Stadium in 1970, Marco Tardelli’s “explosion of joy” – his own words, there – in Madrid in 1982, and Fabio Grosso’s late, late goal against Germany in 2006, Italy’s timbre at the World Cup finals has always had a flame of drama about it. This hasn’t just come in victory, either. It seems unlikely, for example, that there will ever be another nation that finds itself knocked out of the World Cup by both halves of the Korean peninsular, as Italy managed at the hands of the North in 1966 and the South in 2002. We might not want Italy to win, but we want them to be there because the history of the stories of their tournaments in the past have so often contained drama or theatre, a sense of occasion, both the sublime and the ridiculous. “Italy, this is the apocalypse”, led La Gazetta Dello Sport this morning, a call back to the words of Carlo Tavecchio, president of the FIGC, who used precisely this word to describe the possibility of Italy failing to qualify for the finals a few weeks ago.
The pragmatists amongst us will have some degree of understanding of the reasons for Italy’s failure to make the cut for Russia. The team has scored three goals in its last six competitive fixtures, a statistic which bears out the stodginess of the football that they’ve been playing of late. In Milan last night, they dominated possession for long stretches of the game without ever looking as though they had much idea of how to unpick the Swedish defence. They had shouts for penalties waved aside by the referee, but any team that is depending on borderline calls of that nature going their way in order to win a match is leaving its margins too wafer thin. Anyone getting preoccupied with these calls above the team’s overall shortcomings is failing to see the wood for the trees.
There may be more traction in criticism of the coach over the course of the qualifying period. Antonio Conte had, perhaps, somewhat overachieved in getting his team past Spain before losing on penalty kicks oto Germany at Euro 2016, but the rigid tactics and modest career of Gian Piero Ventura, his replacement, have led to widespread criticism of the FIGC (the Italian Football Federation) over an appointment which demonstrates the paucity of options available to international teams when it comes to coaching. Ventura never seemed to get to grips with his team. Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, possibly the most talented of the current Italian squad, only made the briefest of appearances over the two legs of the play-off. It was he to whom Daniele De Rossi gestured last night, which, accompanied by the words, “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win”, will probably provide the epitaph to Ventura’s almost uniquely unhappy spell in charge of the team.
Ventura seems to have been another victim of football’s Peter Principle. He’d had at best a modest managerial career, the sum total of which has led to, in terms of silverware, one Serie C1 – the third tier of Italian football – title, won with Lecce more than twenty years ago, and two Serie D titles, won with Entella in 1985 and Pistoiese in 1991, over the course of more than forty years, and whilst there are familiar names amongst the lengthy list of clubs that he’s coached, even they – Sampdoria and Napoli, for example – were in straitened conditions at the time. His achievement in getting Torino promoted from Serie B in 2012 and then into the Europa League two years later remains probably his most notable achievement, but that’s jarring for nation whose team has previously been led by such imposing figures as Enzo Bearzot, Marcello Lippi, Arrigo Sacchi and Giovanni Trappatoni. It’s been the way of things for some time that international teams cannot compete with clubs for the best coaches. This is why Manchester City have Pep Guardiola whilst England have Gareth Southgate, for example. But if this appointment was made on the cheap by the FIGC, there is no way of looking at it now other than to consider it one of the biggest false economies that Italian football has ever seen.
Our rational minds know all of this, of course. We know that this Italy team was probably too old – seven of last night’s starting line-up for Italy were over thirty and only two were under twenty-seven – and that Italy has not built on the success of winning the 2006 as it probably should have done. We also know that there is little likelihood that this Italian team would have set the world alight next summer, that the coach was too timid, that too few young players are coming through. And yet, and yet, though. For all their current shortcomings, Italy are one of football’s traditional “big” nations. Only Brazil have won the World Cup more than they have. A World Cup finals without Italy is going to feel strange, precisely because it is. They’ve qualified for every tournament since 1958, and the only other one that they missed was in 1930, so long ago that there are very few people alive who even remember it. Along with the Netherlands failing to qualify – for the first time since 2002 – and the USA doing the same – the first time since 1986, for them – the 2018 World Cup finals are going to have a very unusual look to them next summer. And in the meantime, the FIGC has to figure out how it’s going to get the Azzurri back to somewhere near their former glories.