The Fall of Rome 2017


The Fall of Rome 2017.

"Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries were echoing across the starless air...strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, accents of anger, words of suffering and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands." Canto III, The Inferno, Dante

Russia 2018 has already written itself into the history books.

Three and a half big hitters have failed to qualify: The Netherlands, finalists in 2010 and semi-finalists at Brazil 2014, were the first VIP casualty, ending up third in their qualifying group to compound the gloom swirling through the lowlands after missing out on Euro 2016. Three times losing finalists, Oranje's wait for the ultimate prize goes on.

The next big name to miss the deadline were reigning South American champions Chile, whose golden generation finished just outside the playoff spot on the last day of action. A glorious couple of years but then a cup too far.

Then the USA, where MLS grows ever stronger and whose national team drew more supporters to the last World Cup than any other, ended a lamentable fifth in the fairly manageable region of CONCACAF, missing the boat by a mile and leaving its legions of new fans lost for words. Welcome to the cruel world of association football.

But none of those absences compare to the jaw-dropping fact that four-time winners and six-times finalists Italy will not be travelling to Russia next summer. This is their first World Cup qualification failure since 1958, when oriundi (overseas-born players of Italian heritage) like Eddie Firmani and Alcides Ghiggia played in blue.

Gli Azzurri's 1-0 aggregate loss to Sweden was an atomic bomb of a soccer shock and is still somewhat hard to believe: Italy are a staple of World Cups as much as Brazil, Argentina or Germany and the average supporter expects the big boys to all be there. Hell, even Panini albums are made in Italy!

But while Italy might be joint-second in the list of World Cup winning nations, a quick flick through the annals confirms a litany of tragedy as well as triumph for the Azzurri:

The Superga air crash wiped out moved of their side in 1949, in 1958 they failed to qualify having lost to little Northern Ireland and in 1962 the 'Battle of Santiago' saw them crash out of the World Cup after the most violent match in its history.

Four years later the unheralded North Koreans humiliated the Azzurri at the 1966 finals and the team was pelted with tomatoes on their return to Genoa.

In 1970 Italy won a legendary semi-final 4-3 against West Germany but then suffered the heaviest ever defeat in a World Cup final, losing 4-1 to Pele and the indomitable seleçao. Their semi-final heroics had probably knackered them out.

At home in 1990 under Azeglio Vicini they had a golden chance to win the trophy but blew it in a nervous 2-1 loss to Argentina in the semi-final.

1994 brought more agony as they lost on penalties to Brazil in the final and in 2002 their Korean nightmare returned as they were knocked out by the South, due in part to a string of bizarre decisions by Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno.

Zeniths were the victories in 1982 and 2006, not least because they were so unexpected.

Yet the setbacks and black marks surrounding Italian football, whether self-inflicted - the totonero and calciopoli scandals (betting and influencing officials) or not, as at Heysel, paint a decidedly black and white tableau.

That country gave us the perfect word for this duality - chiaroscuro - 'light-dark', used to describe the combination of darkness and brightness in Caravaggio's 17th century paintings.

In keeping with this tradition, this year's disaster is only one tick of the metronome.

All the previous tragedies noted have sparked a pyre of polemics, recriminations and conspiracy theories back in Italy, the 'ci hanno rubato' - 'we wuz robbed' default their way of coping with soccer adversity, although this time the wound seems clearly self-inflicted.

For this qualifying campaign, Italy had been drawn into the same group as Spain so one big gun was always going to end up in the playoffs.

This challenge occurred in the first place because the Azzurri were unusually in the second pot of UEFA teams when the draw was made. This happened because having won only three of their past dozen friendlies they were ranked 17th in the world in July 2015. Italy - only 17th...As surprise World Cup seeds Poland allegedly discovered, it sometimes pays to not play friendlies.

Losing 3-0 to the Spaniards in Madrid in September this year was the straw which broke the camel's back, given they had tied 1-1 in Turin a year before.

Yet the manner of the surrender to the team they had beaten at the Euros last summer implied they would be at risk of elimination should they play anyone half decent in the playoffs.

When the draw for the final eliminators was made, instead of Greece or one of the two Irelands, one of the tougher teams indeed came out of the hat: Sweden, who had beaten France and finished above the Netherlands in Group A.

To make their task even harder, Italy had a doddery old manager without top team experience in Gian Piero Ventura, who had lost the dressing-room following his team's 1-1 draw with Macedonia and had allegedly stormed out of the camp for a few hours following a heated rant before the do-or-die game with the Swedes at San Siro.

Throughout the qualification campaign, the mojo was missing in the team, not only in being outplayed twice by the Spanish but also in a pair of nervous home performances - a narrow 1-0 win over Israel and a more worrying 1-1 draw with Macedonia, hardly the stuff of champions.

This latter draw prompted the players to get together and decide to revert to Antonio Conte's 3-5-2 formation of Euro 2016, without the input of Ventura whose 4-2-4 had failed against Spain and whose 3-4-3 had floundered against the Macedonians.

On the fateful night in Milan, Italy panicked however and instead of playing without fear, hammered away at a prearranged plan of battle - a banal tactic of bombarding the tall and well-drilled Swedes with endless crosses which never looked like opening them up.

The stats often belie the true tale: Italy had three-quarters of possession and took 23 shots to Sweden's four but failed to find the net.

Despite the hammering at the door, the Scandinavian shield wall never yielded. A night of unfolding Italian tragedy was confirmed to one and all when cameras caught defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi refusing Ventura's instruction to go on in the second half, insisting he field attacker Lorenzo Insigne instead.

It was only one deflected shot over the course of 180 minutes which decided who progressed, but despite that most slender of deficits, the humiliation of a football giant not making it to Russia is enormous.

If only little things had gone differently. In the first leg, Andrea Belotti should have guided a header over the line instead of wide of the upright and Matteo Darmian beat goalkeeper Robin Olsen comfortably from 20 yards but with half the goal gaping stuck a post.

They say when Italy play, there are 60 million managers, so when they crashed out there must have been 60 million miserable.

Because, more than any other European nation, Italy lives and breathes football.

While AS, Marca, Sport and Mundo Deportivo reign in Spain, their reach does not feel as ubiquitous as that of Italy's football dailies - Corriere dello Sport (Rome) Gazzetta dello Sport (Milan) and Tuttosport (Turin).

Walk through any Italian town and you see men sat down reading them in cafes, squares and hairdressers.

Coming from England, I cherish fond memories of Italia '90, which even for non-football fans was a hugely romantic cultural event replete with operatic arias, colours, drama, passion and historic backdrops.

I still see the tearful eyes of the kneeling, pleading Toto Schillaci, that Sicilian goal-machine, looking like a saint in a renaissance masterpiece, with his Armani-designed shirt glistening in the Mediterranean warmth, as his short story of glory and tragedy was at its height.

When I moved to Italy in the mid 1990s I was amazed how football was the opium of the people there with saturating print and television coverage and how much it was such a staple of daily conversation in a way it was not back home in England.

So one can only imagine how this latest failure was received - with a cocktail of shock, bewilderment, humiliation, fury and sadness. For those who treat football as a matter of life and death there was surely a modicum of mild trauma.

I was too young to experience England missing out on 1974 ('The End of the World' was a notorious headline) but I felt the 1994 failure keenly (one tabloid repeated the headline).

Although the US World Cup produced a festival of goals before its turgid final, our absence was still one of bitter regret for us as we knew we had missed the biggest party of them all.

I was on my university year abroad in France and it was hard to keep up with the score from Rotterdam where England and the Netherlands were battling out a do-or-die qualifier.

There was no internet in those days, no expat pubs in my town and the only British radio I could tune into was the sport-free BBC World Service. Domestic telly was showing France's final qualifier at home to Bulgaria where Les Bleus only needed a point to make it to the States.

France were comfortably in control and when Eric Cantona scored it seemed their passage to America was sown up.

As the second half wore on and French passage seemed assured, my nerves were in the Netherlands and I could bear it no more. I left the bar and retired home to bed, a little worse for wear and fearful of English elimination but holding the optimism of all true fans that I would wake up to some good news.

Early the next morning I nipped out to the news kiosk to buy l'Équipe and at once in the corner of the front page spied Dennis Bergkamp with the headline 'Angleterre sur le quai' - England on the quayside. We were out, having lost 2-0 at De Kuip.

To say I felt winded by the news would be a massive understatement. When I saw that France had thrown it away in a last minute tragicomedy and missed the boat as well it was only half the shock it should have been.

I called home to ask my father to relate in painstaking detail how the tragedy had unfolded. We almost made the final on penalties in 1990 so how could we not even qualify the following time and in an English-speaking country to boot?

Much later, when the wonderful documentary "An Impossible Job" was aired, England's failure became much less bitter a pill to swallow and even something to laugh about.

How will the Italians cope psychologically with being locked out of the World Cup now? It was the pitchside camera which made An Impossible Job so revelatory and riveting but the Italian public have already seen the bust-up between manager and players on the night of elimination.

The inadvertent transmission of Ventura's clash with De Rossi echoed Giorgio Chinaglia's 'F*** Off' to the bench as he was hauled off at the 1974 World Cup.

Since anger is an accepted stage of grief, Italians were quick to try to punish someone.

FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio conveniently deflected all blame towards the manager he had helped select:

"It is the fault of the coach," he boldly stated, adding, "We should have gone around those Swedish giants with the little players, keeping the ball on the ground. It was completely the wrong lineup."

Beyond Ventura, blame was commonly apportioned to the FIGC, the size of Serie A (20 clubs, the same as England and Spain as it happens but two more than it was between 1988 and 2004), the relative lack of investment in youth football and the number of foreign players in Italy's top flight, in other words the usual suspects.

It is true that Serie A has fallen behind in the 21st century, while it was top of the tree for the period stretching between the mid 1980s and the year 2000.

UEFA league coefficients, which are based on clubs' performances in the Champions League and Europa League over the previous five seasons, rank it third behind the Premier League and La Liga but ahead of the Bundesliga and Ligue 1.

Spain's ascent can be attributed to the quantum leap made by tiki-taka and Real and Atletico Madrid's desperation to compete with Barcelona, but Italy has offered little in tactical innovation by comparison, resting on its laurels of professional preparation, mean defending and not a little gamesmanship.

Former Azzurri coach Arrigo Sacchi called bravely for an attacking revolution in the wake of elimination, complaining that,

"Our (style of play) has remained roughly that of 60-70 years ago: Catenaccio and counter-attack. Two years ago to the question 'What are the innovations of Italian football?', Capello answered, 'We have rediscovered the sweeper.'"

Italy's famously defence-first approach seems ingrained in them however so any metamorphosis would surely take some time.

England's rise meanwhile is money-driven. As the Premier League has imported the best players and managers from around the world the domestic selection has shrunken, forcing the Football Association into rejuvenating the Three Lions set-up.

La Gazzetta dello Sport advocated a compulsory 10% of club revenue be spent on player development and a single playing system taught from top to bottom of Italy's national teams.

This Ajax-inspired idea has recently been taken up by England, whose magical summer at youth level appears to justify it.

The FIGC already has its dedicated training centre, Coverciano, but the entire national team set-up has clearly fallen behind those of its major European rivals France, Germany, Spain and now England.

Howls about the foreign player influx continue but à propos, 53% of Serie A players come from overseas versus 67% in England, whose national team did make it to Russia.

But Fabio Cannavaro, the last Italian to lift the famous trophy and the only Italian present at the draw in Moscow, was more relaxed in his explanation:

"Words do not matter now," he told TMW radio. "We could discuss 3,000 options. It was not just about one game or a tactical issue," adding more interestingly, "I think that this is a defeat that was ten years in the making."

Cannavaro was right. Italy have been on a gradual downward trajectory since their unexpected 2006 World Cup win and No.1 FIFA World Ranking of February 2007. When you are top of the tree, sooner or later, the only way is down.

The following year saw the dawn of tiki-taka and the Spanish empire as Italian methods were bypassed. This handover always happens in the evolving world of match tactics but not even qualifying for the World Cup is a serious decline.

Euro 2008 saw the Azzurri exit the quarter-finals on penalties against the rising star of Spain and La Roja hammered them 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final.

Euro 2016 saw another last eight elimination - this time on penalties by Germany, but in the past two World Cups, 2010 and 2014, Italy went out in the first round, which surely should have rung the alarm bells at Coverciano.

We might not have realised it until now, but the Azzurri have slipped out of the first bracket of national teams.

The player pool does seem rather shallow when compared to Italy squads of the past.
Website Transfermarkt lists only four Italians in the top 20 most valuable footballers playing in Italy: Leonardo Bonucci and Insigne they rate the 4th and 5th, Federico Bernardeschi 13th and Andrea Belotti 17th.

Competing through a lean period when it comes to quality players was the same malady afflicting the Netherlands and the USA, although that criticism cannot be as easy levelled at fellow absentees Chile.

Some of the senior players have just had enough. Andrea Barzagli, Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and De Rossi all announced their retirements after Sweden.

As regards young starlets, Bernadeschi and Fiorentina's Federico Chiesa promise much but are not enough alone to carry the team.

It is goals which win games and Ciro Immobile, Stephan El Shaarawy and Marco Verratti are all competent but not lethal strikers.

Things might have been different if Insigne, who is starring for Serie A leaders Napoli this season, had gained more than 15 minutes playing time across the two playoff matches, but hindsight is always 20/20.

One cannot help wonder whether the rejuvenated Mario Balotelli should have been recalled too from his French exile but it is believed senior players vetoed that potential lifeline.

Ironically, Italy's best player on the night was Brazilian-born midfield orchestrator Jorginho, absurdly only making his debut.

After Ventura's quick scalp, public anger then claimed a sacrificial victim when the egregious Tavecchio finally resigned a week after the Swedish debacle.

Old demons of racism and sexism accusations conveniently came back to hound him out of office, but that was somewhat closing the door after the horse had bolted.

In speaking of "an apocalypse" back in September should Italy not qualify, he had inadvertently built his own scaffold. Now il apocalisse is on everyone's lips.

Missing out on USA '94 was painful for the English having been so buoyed by the euphoria of Italia '90, but it had a silver lining in that the nationalist-patriotic drum banged moronically by the tabloid press was silenced for a change, allowing the World Cup to unfold as an entertainment which allowed true football fanatics to appreciate and debate in peace.

A mass-market spectacle for the English it was not. The Italian public, who normally watch i mondiali to a man, woman and child are now entering territory unknown to most of them.

The fanatical civil religion will miss its quadrennial ceremony for the first time since the Fifties. Only those aged 60 and over remember the last time this happened.

In his 2006 book, "Calcio - A History of Italian Football", academic John Foot noted,

"When a number of intellectuals were asked, in the 1990s, what it was that held Italians together, a fair number cited the national football team."

La Gazzetta dello Sport asked journalist Filippo Conticello as "The Intellectual" for his take and he concurred,

"We have lost a symbol," he explained. "Things which add a national sentiment create a popular narrative and places of memory. I think of the Giro d'Italia and the San Remo music festival. But look, no symbol is more powerful than the national team."

Football is clearly as big a chunk of Italy's national identity as its historic towns and cities, intense visual language, ambrosial food and rich musical tradition. For this reason it used to infuriate me that so many Anglophone books blithely ignored calcio while waxing lyrical about the nation's other cultural icons.

I will not forget walking through Rome during the first half of one of Italy's World Cup matches and seeing mostly Americans and English bourgeois tourists on the otherwise deserted streets, wondering what all the locals were up to.

For a nation only born in 1870 and which is still an imperfect assembly of foaming regional identities glued together by a central state few trust that deeply, cheering the blue shirts is something which genuinely unites the entire peninsula. But next summer they cannot do that.

Buffon, announcing his international retirement with grace, hit the nail on the head.

"I'm not sorry for myself," he said, "but for all Italian football. We failed at something that also means something on a social level."

Indeed, a nation's summer plans are now up in the air. How many Italians will not even watch the World Cup and how bizarre and painful will it feel for those who do?

There is also an economic hit to be had. With millions of summer plans unexpectedly cancelled, extraordinary losses of more than €15 billion have been floated.

Sales of pizzas, barbecues and beers will miss their sales targets. Replica shirts and tricolour flags will sit unsold in boxes. Panini stickers will stay in their packets and orders of many goods will be cancelled. Nobody wants bitter souvenirs and a nation without the feel-good factor does not spend its lucre easily.

Mothers and fathers up and down the land have faced the awkward job of explaining to their bambini that their country will not be playing in Russia. With the farce of a winter tournament in 2022, Italians will not be able to celebrate a summer World Cup until 2026 at the earliest now.

State broadcaster RAI, who registered 27 million views the last time Italy won the World Cup, are notably horrified at having shelled out for TV rights for Russia 2018.

"I am very, very disappointed," said its sporting director Gabriele Romagnoli, laconically.

Soccer success is a pendolino and for now the Italian pendulum has swung the wrong way.

But that in a nutshell is Italy the nation and not just the football team: La Nazionale have been bad just as much as they have been good, pulled shirts as much as netted beautiful goals.

For Marco Tardelli's unforgettable celebration in 1982 there is also Marco Materazzi abusing Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 final.

Italy the country is as infuriating as much as it is delightful. Like many outsiders I hate it as much as I love it.

Harry Lime put the duality of that land quite sweetly in Graham Greene's The Third Man in his famous 'cuckoo-clock' speech:

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance."

So this year it is Berlusconi rather than Botticelli but there will be another Italian football rebirth as the nation is just too calcio-dipendente to go missing for long.

If the FIGC reacts as it should do, failure to qualify could be catalyst for greater things down the line. Remember how woeful Germany were at Euro 2000?

Italy have been a staple of World Cups for so long so their absence in 2018 upsets the natural order.

Fans of clubs or countries without much chance of winning trophies are loathe to admit it, but they secretly want the big boys to stay big, otherwise David cannot defeat Goliath.

Russia 2018 will feel different without the Azzurri there, and poorer for their absence.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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