The word “vergogna” is not one you see or hear often in Italy, but you wouldn’t know it from the last 24 hours.
Directed toward the Italian men’s national team, it was shouted from the crowd in Palermo on Thursday night. It was written with venom on the front pages of Friday’s morning paper. It was spelled out in all caps in WhatsApp group chats and it was discussed over the midmorning cappuccino. Frankly, it means “shame.” More colloquially it means “disgrace.” It is a word loaded with such contempt and pique that you have to think twice before using it in this country.
So to use it twice in five years, and to direct it at an entity that hardly impacts daily life, is a “vergogna” in itself. But in a calcio-crazed country such as Italy, there are few other things that warrant such frequent usage outside of other disturbing abominations like fettuccine Alfredo and the infamous bureaucracy.
But for the second straight World Cup, Italy has failed to qualifyand regardless of the circumstances, that alone is both a shame and a disgrace when you feel entitled to something.
There are certain things in Italy that feel like a birthright: a right to the world’s best food and wine, a right to complain about anything while you wait an hour in line at the post office and a right to occasional glory (but never shame) on the part of the Italian national team. It is that very sense of entitlement that leads a crowd to shout “vergogna” at the same players who, less than a year ago, were crowned champions of Europe.
The irony in Italy’s World Cup qualifying disgrace is that it fell victim to the very entitled pride that befell its rivals at the Euros while continuing to walk the tightrope that is brinksmanship. Italy was not the best team, nor even a favorite, at the Euros; it simply managed to survive three extra time games in the knockout stages, while other teams wrestled the hubris that comes with entitlement.
With no other clear front-runner, 2018 World Cup winner France was the powerhouse that appeared entitled to win Euro 2020 before losing in the round of 16. And perhaps it was an entitlement that led England fans to sing “It’s Coming Home” before the final at Wembley against Italy, especially after Luke Shaw’s second-minute goal. Italy and Azzurri fans took advantage of that pride, only to take a drink from that poisoned chalice when World Cup qualifying began.
It is that very sense of entitlement that has pervaded the landscape of world—and Italian—soccer over the last year, mirroring a disturbing trend laced with privilege and greed even at an organizational level.
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Before the European Super League, the only thing that seemed to unite Juventus fans with AC Milan and Inter supporters was the Italian national team. But when the Super League fell like a meteor from the sky, it was the closed-shop concept based upon the rich and “storied” clubs’ entitlement that united supporters against it. Ultimately, having teams’ places secured in an elite tournament proved too revolting to the spirit of competition and fair play, even if there were other insidious ways to make sure the playing field is anything but level.
So asking the question: “How did Italy lose to a team like North Macedonia?” not only discredits the spirit of competition and fair play that fans fought so hard to protect over the last year, but also only adds to the sense of entitlement that has plagued the sport. That is not where the “vergogna” should lie, nor should it take away from a blossoming nation’s biggest victory.
Rather, the shame comes from realization that Italy must spend at least 12 years without a World Cup appearance, years that essentially make up a generation. There are several players who took part in the 2018 World Cup disgrace, won the Euros last summer and were on the roster Thursday in Palermo.
Other than Marco Verratti, the core of this generation—players such as Wembley hero Leonardo Bonucci, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile—has played only mere minutes in a World Cup as substitutes and injury replacements. Others such as Alessandro Florenzi and Jorginho may never play in a World Cup. And then there is Giorgio Chiellini, the beloved 37-year-old captain who bridged the generations, and whose final memory of playing in a World Cup will be of Luis Suárez sinking his teeth into the Juventus legend’s shoulder.
The unknown repercussions of what it does to the next generation of players and fans who don’t see themselves represented at the World Cup is where the shame truly lies. Because watching Italy win the 2006 World Cup gifted memories to entire generations while also inspiring the current group of players. Paying that experience forward, providing just the slim chance at a lifelong memory to your compatriots with whom so much more units than divides, is always something to work for. The fact that this team wasn’t able to do that for its country twice in a row is the “vergogna.” And it is this duality that can label this generation “the Heroes of Wembley” during the summer and “the Disgraces of Palermo” in the spring.
There is no silver lining here, other than life will carry on as it so often does. The anguish of failing to qualify for the World Cup once again will fade. But that anguish will never erase the memory of millions taking to the streets to celebrate the Euros, just one year after Italy was ground zero for the pandemic in Europe. It will never erase the feeling of hugging neighbors and friends and strangers when we once lived in fear of contact with anyone from outside of our self-imposed and state-imposed bubbles.
If there is anything to fall back upon, it is that the narrative of sport is simply a revolving door of redemption and shame. Shame needs the hope of redemption and triumph to be able to pierce our hearts, and redemption needs the memory of shame in order to make victory that much sweeter. “Vergogna” sometimes warrants shouting, but it always warrants reflection. Now, Italy will have to wait four more years for a chance at redemption, while an entire generation continues to only know World Cup shame.
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