Italy’s three main sports newspapers were united in their assessment of the country’s shock World Cup elimination by North Macedonia on Thursday – ‘Disastro’.
That was the word that screamed from the front pages of Gazzetta dello Sport, Corriere dello Sport and Tuttosport, one word doing the work of thousands.
And, at newsagents around the country, the situation had not changed much by Friday morning, with the respective headlines reading ‘Out of the world’, ‘To hell’ and, more simply, ‘Nooooooooo’.
It is truly a sporting disaster for Italy, who miss out on successive World Cups for the first time, having also failed to qualify for Russia 2018. Come the 2026 finals, assuming they make it, the Azzurri and their fans will have been without World Cup football for 12 years.
It is difficult to assess whether Thursday’s calamity is more or less painful than what happened in November 2017, when the Azzurri failed to edge past Sweden and book a place in Russia. That was certainly a terrible night, one on which World Cup-winning heroes from Germany 2006 Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele de Rossi said farewell to international football in unhappy fashion.
But that was also the moment in which a supposed process of innovation started – Roberto Mancini was appointed manager shortly afterwards and a new attacking mentality was implemented. Three fantastic years followed, culminating in Italy being crowned European champions at Wembley last July. No one has forgotten that.
But then this.
On the one hand, it feels like Italy should not have been in this predicament in the first place. Mancini’s men are still the heroes of Wembley, the team who remained unbeaten for 37 consecutive games. They frankly looked dominant in Group C of qualifying, opening with three wins, but then drew four times between September and November last year, with Lithuania the only team they beat in their final five matches.
Two of those draws came against Switzerland, who claimed direct qualification at the finish line, with the four-time World Cup winners missing a penalty in both games. Scoring either of them would have been enough to see Italy’s players sitting comfortably in front of the TV last night, instead of having 32 shots, 16 corners to nil, 65% possession and conceding in the 92nd minute to North Macedonia’s only shot.
On the other hand, everyone felt something had changed.
Since this season began, tension and self-belief had crossed paths, moving steadily in opposite directions. The Azzurri won the Euros with composition and quality; on Thursday, they mainly played long balls. The likes of Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne, to name just a few, are totally out of form. The regular defensive line of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni di Lorenzo have all been injured.
Even the boss seems to have lost his magical touch, insisting on picking players who are not performing. So there has been understandable criticism.
Newspapers stress a loss of identity, suggesting Italy have reverted to an older version of themselves; they have shown a lack of creativity, their most experienced players short of self-confidence; a centre-forward in Ciro Immobile who seems unsuited to this level.
But is that enough to explain what happened against a team ranked 47th in Europe and 67th in the world?
Once again the devastating night in Palermo is simply a mirror to Italian football as a whole, something the Euro 2020 triumph had masked for a while. Yes, there have been mistakes along the road – Jorginho will, as he said on Thursday, think of those two missed penalties against the Swiss as long as he lives; Mancini could have played Giacomo Raspadori from the start – but is it really just their fault?
Italian football would be better off finally facing up to its systemic problems, rather than looking for scapegoats and quick fixes. No Serie A club has won a European trophy since 2010. As a result of a non-strategic approach to youth football, top-flight clubs boast an average of 2.7 under-21 Italian players in their squads, who play 4% of the total Serie A minutes, 80% of those minutes coming as substitutes after the 70th minute.
The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) recently asked clubs to postpone matchday 31 of Serie A to prepare for the World Cup play-offs, but its request was rejected. It was a legitimate decision by Serie A but now – with all due respect to the clubs involved – the fans who watched Empoli v Verona and Venezia v Sampdoria last weekend can also watch the rest of the world competing in Qatar in November.
How important are the Azzurri for Italian football? How much space do they deserve in a busy calendar? FIGC president Gabriele Gravina is in no doubt where they stand.
“Italy is perceived as an inconvenience by clubs, rather than as an opportunity,” he has said.
He has also said: “We want Mancini to stay and he has committed to us.”
The manager’s contract was not long ago extended to 2026, when the World Cup will be held in Mexico, the USA and Canada.
Following what he says is his “most painful” sporting disappointment ever, the 57-year-old former Inter and Manchester City boss has the right to lick his wounds. After that, hopefully he will still consider himself the best person to help implement long-awaited structural changes in the Italian game and mold a new-look national team around young talents like Gianluca Scamacca, Davide Frattesi and Nicolo Zaniolo.
Otherwise another ‘disastro’ may follow.