Welcome to the apocalypse. For the first time since 1958, Italy has failed to qualify for the World Cup.
It’s a shock to the system. No team apart from Germany had qualified more World Cups consecutively, and only one, Brazil, has won the tournament more times. Italy is a giant of world soccer in a way that only a handful of other countries are.
Italy’s absence from Russia next summer was confirmed on Monday night at the San Siro in Milan, where the Italians were held scoreless by a determined Sweden and condemned to aggregate defeat by Jakob Johansson’s deflected winner in the first leg.
The great Gianluigi Buffon, playing a competitive game for Italy for the last time, wept as he left the field. When you’re Italy, no matter how poorly you’ve played, you cannot possibly be prepared to miss the World Cup.
The majority of the fans who filled the San Siro, as well as all of the players who represented their countries on, had never seen Italy miss a World Cup finals.
But in a strictly footballing sense, you could have this failure coming a mile away.
At Euro 2016, Antonio Conte’s brilliance was on full display. Though they eventually fell on penalties against Germany at the quarterfinal stage, that Azzurri team was a marvel.
Their achievements – which included, ironically enough, a win against Sweden but were highlighted by stunningly comprehensive victories over Belgium and Spain – were made all the more impressive by the fact they were working with team had very, very little talent.
The team’s two most significant midfielders, Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, both missed the tournament due to injury. It’s doubtful that a single Italian midfielder or forward in France could have gotten into the Belgian or Spanish team.
But that was the beauty of their performances. Individually, they made up an average side. But together, under Conte’s masterful direction, they were a buzzsaw.
But Conte’s brilliance, along with Buffon and the outstanding Bonucci-Barzagli-Chiellini defensive triumvirate, covered up the true state of the team. When Conte departed after the tournament to take the reigns at Chelsea – a decision that has worked out rather well for him – things pretty well fell apart.
Lacking any outstanding candidates fill the manager’s position, Italy turned to 68-year-old Serie A journeyman Gian Piero Ventura almost by default.