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.
Ventura tried to develop a new formation, but he was unsuccessful. By the time the playoff rolled around, Italy was back in Conte’s signature 3-5-2 and truly looking like a shadow of itself.
All the passion from last summer was gone. Ventura never found his system, or his personnel, and his team never found their belief.
Sweden’s performances in these two games had a winning quality similar to Italy’s last summer. The Swedes have just one noteworthy talent, chief creator Emil Forsberg, but they played together with heart and desire.
At times, especially in international football, cohesiveness and passion count most. Good coaching is what breeds both qualities, and good coaching is what Italy lacked in last year and change.
Things were so bad that Ventura might have been fired even if Italy had overturned its aggregate deficit on Monday and qualified.
Ventura’s early results in the job, which included a draw against Spain in Turin, weren’t terrible. But Italy’s recent form was. They were blown out in Spain on the return date in September, drew Macedonia at home in October. Failing to score in 180 minutes against Sweden was a fitting conclusion to Ventura’s reign.
What most damns Ventura is that he, unlike Conte, did have several exciting young attackers to call on. Problem was, he mostly left them on the bench.
Despite knowing he needed two goals at least on Monday, Ventura kept Lorenzo Insigne, Andrea Belotti and Stephan El Shaarawy on the bench. The result was a familiarly punchless performance.
Italian football needs a reboot. The larger trends since the triumph of 2006, even before this failure and considering the run to the final of Euro 2012, were not good.
Despite several strong performances at the European Championships, Italy had only won one of its last six World Cup games – exiting at the group stage in both 2010 and 2014.
The likes of Totti, Del Piero, and Pirlo from the generation that won the country’s last World Cup have never been replaced. Now, the legendary defensive core that carried Italy since that victory is aging out as well.
For Buffon, who had nothing to do with Italy’s undoing in this qualifying process, your heart breaks. Speaking of giants, the international game is seeing one bow out some eight months too soon.
But the truth is that this hackneyed version of Italy wasn’t World Cup quality. They didn’t deserve to go to Russia – same as the Netherlands, and Chile, and Ghana, and the United States.
Places at the World Cup have to be earned, and those teams didn’t earn anything. In Italy, the recriminations for missing the tournament will be fierce and unremitting. The show will go on without them.