For sixty years, Italy hadn’t missed a World Cup. Now, the reigning European Champions have missed two in two.
It might seem improbable that a side, which won the Euros last summer by playing with uncharacteristic flair and freedom, has not been able to qualify for this winter’s World Cup. In hindsight, however, Italy’s struggles against North Macedonia on Thursday were in continuation of a string of below-par performances that had led them to the tricky path of playoffs.
Roberto Mancini’s side finished second in qualifying Group C, two points behind group-winners Switzerland. So, while Switzerland qualified for the World Cup, Italy had to settle for a playoff berth. The four-time world champions, however, would not have found themselves in this position had they been clinical in the group stages of the qualifiers.
Figure this: In September, against Bulgaria, Italy had 27 shots at goal compared to only four by their opponents and were held to a 1-1 draw. They missed a penalty in both games against Switzerland, which led to them dropping points once again after the matches finished in a 0-0 and 1-1 draws. Then, in their final qualifier against Northern Ireland, Italy had 12 shots at goal but failed to score once again, resulting in yet another draw.
In all these games, Italy were the dominant team but still, they dropped a total of eight points only because of poor finishing. The performance against North Macedonia felt like a natural conclusion to their campaign as Italy had 32 shots at goal but could not find the back of the net.
After their shock exit, Italy’s star midfielder Jorginho – who missed both penalties against Switzerland – acknowledged the problem. “Unfortunately in the last few games we made small errors and were unable to recover from them. They made the difference,” the Chelsea player was quoted as saying by RAI Sport. “It hurts when I think about it, because I still think about it and it will haunt me for the rest of my life… Stepping up there twice and not being able to help your team and your country is something that I will carry with me forever.”
It’s ironic that a team that restored Italian football’s pride during Euros by playing expansive and showed an attacking nous not commonly associated with them were let down by their attacking play in the World Cup qualifiers.
The two men who were key to Italy’s Euro triumph, Leonardo Spinazzola and Federico Chiesa, were both out with long-term injuries. At the same time, they seemed over-reliant on veteran defensive pair Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, hinting at the lack of bench strength.
Reports in Italy also cited Ciro Immobile’s inability to translate his Lazio form for the national team and players who lacked innovation as an example of the ‘stale’ domestic structure.
An editorial in leading Italian sports daily, Gazzetta Dello Sport, underlined the need to revamp the entire system amidst calls to give more Italian players a chance to play for their clubs in Serie A. This was highlighted in 2017, when Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, by Carlo Ancelotti as well while refusing the offer to become the national team coach.
Italian football chief Gabriele Gravina, too, touched upon this issue, talking about the underlying tensions between the Italian clubs and the national team set-up which contributed to the debacle.
He told RAI Sport: “Our coaches have a very difficult job choosing players because only 30 percent of the youth team players are Italian… We need to understand what needs doing, for example resolving the problem of our younger players not getting playing time. Another issue is that while the lads arrive with enthusiasm, every time we call them up, the clubs put up resistance. They see the Nazionale as more of an irritation than an opportunity.”