Italy's World Cup 'Apocalypse' caused by decade-long decline and Ventura's ill-fated reign
So much for tournament expertise. Italy, the land of superb managers, of reputed knowhow in what theorists term ‘game management’, will be absent from football's grandest show next summer.
Tradition, history, and prestige make theirs the most conspicuous absence of any nation’s at Russia 2018, but the fact is World Cups were becoming a bugbear for the Azzurri long before Monday night’s elimination via play-off by a sturdy Sweden.
It is 11 years since Italy lifted their fourth World Cup, triumphing via penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in Berlin with France down to 10 men.
In six World Cup finals matches since then, Italy have won just one and lost three.
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They flunked out in the group phase in South Africa in 2010 without a single victory and, after defeating England in their opening fixture in Brazil in 2014, they lost their next two without scoring.
Their rock-bottom felt sudden on Monday night in Milan, because it is 60 years since a World Cup prepared to hoist up its flags without the Italian tricolor among them, but the decline had been signposted.
Resolute performances by the Azzurri at the last two European championships have looked like acts of defiance.
Italy reached the final of the continental showpiece in 2012, where they lost heavily to Spain in Kiev; the squad who travelled to France for Euro 2016 had been waved off amid a consensus they, as most pundits had it, formed “the worst squad ever to represent Italy at a major tournament”.
Antonio Conte guided that Italy to within a penalty shoot-out of the semi-finals as they were edged out by Germany.
Conte burnished his fine reputation on the back of that, and promptly took his next employer, Chelsea, to a Premier League, another “miracle”, as he has taken to describing it.
Actually, when an Italian manager picks up a major club prize it seems anything but a miracle.
Conte succeeded Claudio Ranieri as manager of the English champions, and joined Carlo Ancelotti, at Bayern Munich, Massimiliano Allegri, at Juventus, and Massimo Carrera, at Spartak Moscow, in winning significant leagues last season.
There is little wrong with the part of the Italian system that produces managers, although you only had to hear the jeering when the name of Gian Piero Ventura was read out at San Siro before Italy kicked off against Sweden to know the 69-year-old who now holds the rare, ignominious record of having failed to reach a World Cup is deemed a failure.
“I am sorry,” said Ventura after his team had, over 95 minutes, failed to score the single goal that would at least have matched Sweden’s 1-0 win the first leg of the play-off.
What Ventura did not immediately add was his resignation, although the idea he will continue in the job, when the likes of Ancelotti, dismissed by Bayern last month, may be available is far-fetched.
His Italy, sluggish, maladroit, managed just three goals in the five games that led to the abyss.
Nowhere was the epitaph of a limp campaign more poignant than in the image of Daniele de Rossi, veteran anchor midfielder and sometime central defender being instructed to warm up from the substitutes’ bench as Italy sought a breakthrough against the Swedes.
“But we need a goal!,” protested De Rossi, pointing to the various attacking players next to him on the bench.
The word ‘Apocalypse’ is in vogue across the country. The president of the Italian Federation used it. He needed something a little stronger than ‘Disaster’, which is what happened to Italy in 2010 and 2014.
Whichever manager is entrusted with taking Italy back towards the heavyweight division of international football must do without Gianluigi Buffon, now retired from Azzurri duty, at 39 years old, and tearful at the end of his 175th cap.
De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli, old enough to have won the World Cup in 2006 also look ready for their arriverdercis.
Buffon, like De Rossi, pointed ahead, to “talented kids we have”. He was not being sentimental.
The lacklustre Italy of the past 18 months bear little resemblance to the vibrant Napoli currently leading Serie A, or the Juventus who have reached two of the last three Uefa Champions League finals.
With the right manager, Italy will rise again.