Italian football needs fixing once for all

I was cautious about Italy’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup, as unlike previous editions, this would be played on a knockout basis, and Italy would have two knockout matches to navigate.

The draw for the first of these knockout matches was favourable as the Azzuris were drawn against North Macedonia. On paper, it was supposed to be a winnable match.

I was confident that given the importance of this match and the quality Italy had, they would have enough to see off the Macedonians. What lay ahead after this match worried me, as we would likely face the previous European champions, Portugal.

But football, like life, can be unpredictable. Italy ended Thursday’s World Cup qualifier with 32 attempts on goal and 16 corners, but its opponent, North Macedonia, had the most crucial statistic – the only goal in injury time that was enough to knock four-time champions Italy out of the World Cup finals.

For the second time in a row, the mighty Italians – armed with a significant and reputable football history, a team with prestige and pedigree that were, nine months ago, crowned Champions of Europe – will not contest in the World Cup.

Not contesting in the World Cup is unthinkable for the football-mad nation, and its fans all over the world. It was treated with indignity and disdain when it failed to qualify for the 2018
World Cup.

That was written off as a pathetic campaign, mismanaged by Giampiero Ventura. In stepped Roberto Mancini, with style and swagger, restoring Italy’s confidence. He got them to play in a modern way. As a result, they went on a long, unbeaten run that included qualifying for Euro 2020 with 10 wins out of 10 matches, and winning the tournament, despite not being favourites at the start of it.

Within nine months, to go from a team that was on top of the world, to slumping to the depths of hell, is remarkable. An improbable statistic is that Italy has only lost two matches in 42 matches; one against Spain in the UEFA Nations League, and the recent match against North Macedonia.

Since winning the European Championships, Italy has left their scoring boots at home. Although, one would argue that from the semifinals of the tournament onwards, Italy has not looked efficient or sharp in attack.

They were outplayed by Spain in the semifinals and were lucky to win by a penalty shootout. They dominated England in terms of possession in the final without really creating anything of note.

In their first World Cup qualifier after winning the European Championships, they had 27 attempts on goal to Bulgaria’s four, but ended the game with a 1-1 draw.

However, the most costly misses were in both games against Switzerland – Jorginho’s missed penalties in both matches ceded advantage to the Swiss as Italy could only draw against their neighbours in both matches.

Italy shouldn’t need the playoffs to qualify but football doesn’t work on ifs and buts. Post-match against North Macedonia, Jorginho said the two penalty misses would haunt him for life, and they should.

He saw his penalty saved by Yann Sommer in St. Jakob-Park just like Jordan Pickford had done in the European Championships final shootout. In Rome, Domenico Berardi wanted to take the spot-kick, but Jorginho took the ball from him to try and redeem himself. Instead, he skied his kick like the legendary Roberto Baggio.

One could argue that Italy was unlucky, but they needed to make their luck count, and when the opportunity presents itself, you need to take it.

In football, as long as you don’t score, you run the risk of conceding and compromising a result.

In the aftermath of this disaster and devastation, one cannot help but feel that this is a huge blow to the confidence and mental strength of the Italian players. Those still involved in trying to win some silverware for their club, either in Italy or abroad, have to bounce back quickly for their club sides.

Mancini might not remain as Italy’s manager after this international week. If he stays on, he has his work cut out for him to restore the lost confidence, and work on rejuvenating parts of the team, as well as working to repair the team, psychologically.

A clean break from Mancini’s era would make the process smoother. Mancini has also paid the price for not refreshing the team to include in the first-team players from outside the squad that won the European Championships.

Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup exemplifies the fall from grace of Italian football.

The last time an Italian team won the Champions League was in 2010. No Italian team has won the Europa League, which was last won in 1999, when it was known as the UEFA Cup.

Italy has not played in the knockout stages of the World Cup since their victorious 2006 campaign. The present Italy squad has age on its side, as there are several players still in their 20s. However, the biggest problem the national team manager would face is in having a bigger pool of players to select from.

Big Italian clubs are reluctant to blood young Italian players, choosing instead to send these players out on loan to gain experience before bringing them back, or using them as makeweights in transfer deals.

It will take a huge collective effort for Italian clubs to change their attitude and mentality towards young Italian players. Italian clubs have largely moved away from their traditional catenaccio days and I don’t see any reason why they need to revert to the old ways in the national team on the back of this failure.

Italy was once spoilt for choice in attack, but today, lacks world-class strikers and playmakers, which explains the lack of bite in Italy’s attack in recent matches.

Gianluca Scamacca, Giacomo Raspadori, Nicolo Zaniolo and the injured Federico Chiesa are promising players for these positions, but they too, need to further develop themselves to be called world-class.

Italian football seems to be in crisis, and it needs fixing once and for all. But come what may, Italian football will never die.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.