Italy fails to qualify for World Cup for first time in 60 years

Gianluigi Buffon reacts during Italy’s 0-0 draw with Sweden, which eliminated the Italians from World Cup contention. (Getty)

The 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle has been one of high-profile failures. More than many, and perhaps any that came before it, it has been one of shocking, immense disappointment. And in its final week, it just claimed its most famous victim: Italy.

Yes, Italy. The four-time World Cup winners. The champions just 12 years ago. The ever-presents since 1958. The nation with the third-longest active streak of appearances at soccer’s quadrennial party. That streak is kaput.

The Italians missed out on their first World Cup in 60 years in very Italian fashion, by going scoreless over 180 minutes and losing 1-0 on aggregate to Sweden. They had been outplayed and beaten by a deflected shot in Solna three days earlier. They couldn’t manage an equalizer Monday in Milan. They are not going to Russia.

They will howl about the refereeing over the two legs. They felt Sweden’s physicality in the first went unpunished, and a couple penalty-box fouls in the second went uncalled.


But Sweden had equally convincing penalty claims waved away.


In reality, they have only themselves to blame. They weren’t good enough against Spain in September, a 3-0 loss that condemned them to second place in UEFA Group G. And they weren’t good enough in the resulting playoff against the Swedes.

In fact, Italy hasn’t been good enough since Antonio Conte left his managerial post following a Euro 2016 quarterfinal loss to Germany. Gian Piero Ventura took over, and the Azzurri have underwhelmed since. They weren’t exactly fortunate to draw Spain in their qualifying group, nor Sweden, the best of the unseeded teams, in the playoff. But a large portion of their failure is their own doing.

Specifically, it was Ventura’s doing. Many fans will point to the head honcho, who might have been sacked even if Italy had qualified, and rightly so. He was in over his head. Before a five-year stint at Torino, the 69-year-old had jumped around to 16 different clubs, many of them in Italy’s lower divisions.

Upon being named national team coach, by far the most high-profile job of his 40-year career, he tinkered, and attempted to allow his team to evolve. He moved away from Conte’s 3-5-2, and experimented with other shapes. But the other alignments lacked fluidity and creativity, so Ventura reverted to a 3-5-2 for the playoff.

The results were disastrous. The reasoning was flawed. The problem wasn’t the shape. It was, in part, the personnel. Italy is no longer the Italy of old. But there was a new Italy waiting to be unleashed. A new Italy with heavy Napoli and Roma influence, that featured the stars of Serie A’s two most exciting teams. Ventura refused to unleash it.

Incredibly, he left his best non-defender on the bench for all but 15 minutes of the two Sweden games. And when diminutive winger Lorenzo Insigne did come on in the first leg, he was deployed as a central midfielder. He was then left out entirely as Italy chased an aggregate equalizer on Monday. Three substitutions came and went. Insigne sat on the sidelines as 11 inferior attackers fruitlessly pounded balls into the Sweden box.

At least Jorginho, Napoli’s pass-master, played all 90 minutes of the home leg. He created Italy’s two best chances, one with a customary incisive ball to Ciro Immobile. But his brilliance merely begged the question: Why hadn’t he been involved in the first leg, or earlier in the qualifying cycle?

Italy was too slow, too unimaginative, and too stale. And as a result, it won’t be in Russia. Sweden will.

The ramifications are numerous. Gianluigi Buffon’s illustrious international career will end tainted by this failure. He will never pull on an Azzurri shirt in a competitive match again. Italy’s beloved goalkeeper, who won a world title in 2006, will retire a legend. He was in tears during a post-match interview. He deserved one more summer in the spotlight. He won’t get it.

Other aging players will surely follow Buffon into international retirement. Danielle De Rossi, also a member of the 2006 team, confirmed after the match that he will be one of them.

But the main, overarching consequence is that the World Cup will be without Italy for the first time in 60 years. For several generations of fans, that’s unfathomable. For Italians, it’s a travesty.

The inquest has already begun. It won’t end anytime soon. This failure is monumental. And Italy’s absence in Russia will be alarming.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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