A world without Italy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:54 PM, December 02, 2017

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A world without Italy

For someone whose first vivid memory of football was the Italia 90 and whose lasting impression from that World Cup was Salvatore Schillaci's euphoric goal-scoring celebrations, it is hard to take in the fact that Italy will not be part of next year's World Cup in Russia. Thirty-two teams have made it to Russia, including 14 from Europe, and four-time champions Italy is not one of them.

It is a shame that the joint second-highest title-holders will be missing out from the greatest show on earth. It is a shame that the World Cup will not see a record sixth final's appearance of arguably one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time or one of the meanest defences in world football.

But it's not anyone else's fault that Italy couldn't make it to the grand stage, a competition which they only missed twice before—once in the inaugural World Cup in 1930 when they willingly didn't participate, and the next time in 1958 during the World Cup in Sweden. It was their own doing and they had to paid the price.

It has been 59 years since then and Italy has added two more titles to their two pre-WWII title-haul during this era, with the last one coming as late as 2006. What could have happened in the past 11 years that a team, which under Marcello Lippi had conceded just one goal during their entire 2006 World Cup campaign, failed to even go through to the qualifying stages?

A few things have happened actually. The most visible of them was that they were put in a very tough group for the qualifiers, with Spain being the in-form team of the group. It was always going to be an uphill task to grab the lone direct qualifying spot from the group, which they eventually did not. They didn't do all that bad, but were second-best to Spain, meaning they had to go through a double-legged playoff. For the playoffs, Italy were one of the four seeded teams, but as the luck of the draw would have it, they were pitted against the strongest unseeded team of the competition, Sweden.

Yet one would have expected them to move past Sweden, a team whose biggest achievement at the World Cup is a runners-up finish, back in 1958 on their own soil. But Italy did not only fail to win either of those matches, they also failed to score in 180 minutes of football, despite dominating possession for most part of the two legs. It was as much as a tactical failure from Italy boss Gian Piero Ventura as much as it was a failure of his charges to break down a resolute and disciplined Swedish defence. The one deflected goal from the first leg proved to be the deciding factor as the men in blue huffed and puffed around the Swedish penalty box, without any outcome whatsoever.

So who is to blame for all this? A lot of people, including the 69-year-old coach Ventura and his employer, the highly controversial Carlos Tavecchio. Ventura was a provincial coach whose greatest achievement thus far had been taking Torino from Serie B in 2011 to the Europa League round of 16 in 2015. However, he never managed any top Serie A clubs and had only the 1996 Serie C title in his trophy cabinet. His appointment was made by Tavecchio, a man who is more renowned for inciting racism, xenophobia and misogyny than for his footballing acumen.

These people failed to read the warning signs that were getting more and more pronounced ever since their triumph in 2006. Since that famous night in Berlin, Italy have only managed to win one of their World Cup finals and were eliminated from the group stages in the following two competitions. They did, however, reach the final of Euro 2012 and made it to the quarterfinals of the 2016 edition, but pundits will say, those squads far exceeded their potential, thanks to the innovativeness of Cesare Prandelli and Antonio Conte. These two coaches, in those two particular tournaments, took two aging squads and turned them into something that was much bigger than its parts. Those performances only masked the fact that Italy was an aging team, devoid of young legs and the ability to play fantasy football.

That brings us to the core of the problem, which is a dearth of local talent coming through the systems in Italian football.

A few statistics will help illuminate the argument. For the record, the last time a Serie A club—an Inter Milan team which had fielded 11 foreigners in their starting 11 in the final match—won the Champions League was in 2010. The last time an Italian side contested in a UEFA Cup/Europa League final was in the last century. And there has not been an Italian Ballon d'Or winner since 2006.

Thankfully, in the wake of this debacle, both Ventura and Tavecchio have left, and hopefully someone with a lot more pedigree in European football will take charge. Italy still produces the best coaches in Europe—in the last two years, three of the top five European leagues were won by Italian coaches—so finding a good coach with a vision will not be hard, but whether he will be provided with the right kind of environment and a forward-looking system, remains to be seen.

There are plenty of problems at the heart of the Italian system, and they need to be fixed pretty soon because a country that has produced players like Meazza, Piola, Mazzola, Riva, Facchetti, Zoff, Rossi, Baresi, Baggio, Maldini, Buffon, Nesta, Cannavaro, Del Piero and Totti should be too much of a miss at the world stage.

Atique Anam is a senior sports reporter, The Daily Star.

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