to some extent, italy was unlucky. he had 32 shooting from four. On most nights, what he did would have been enough to beat North Macedonia. but it was not like that. lost to aleksandar trajkovski’s stoppage-time goal and, for the second time in a row, italy failed to qualify. but to speak merely of misfortune is a little to miss the point. misfortune can occur in a single match; The point is that Italy became vulnerable to that kind of bad luck by failing to win their group and having to participate in the tiebreaker.
giorgio chiellini spoke of a “great vacuum” and there is no doubt that this is a great embarrassment for italy. After missing the 1958 world cup, he qualified for 14 tournaments in a row, but has now missed the last two. italy has not played in a world cup knockout match since winning the world cup in 2006. by the time the next world cup comes around in ’26, it will have been 20 years in which their only world cup victory world was against england in ’14. Add in the fact that Serie A is in retreat, without an Italian team in the Champions League quarter-finals and there hasn’t been an Italian winner since Inter in 2011, and the picture looks bleak.
however, italy won the euro last summer, reached the final in 2012 and went out on penalties in the quarterfinals in 2016. it’s too simplistic to portray this simply as a matter of decline.
“last summer was the most beautiful joy; now comes the biggest disappointment,” said italy coach roberto mancini. “It is not easy to think of other things. I feel so sorry for the boys: I love them much more tonight than in July.”
perhaps that success in the euro calls for closer scrutiny in light of what followed. breeze through turkey and switzerland on home soil in the group was perhaps not the achievement it seemed. Italy then recorded victories against Austria and Belgium before triumphing on penalties against Spain and England. it was a success rooted in resilience and organization; Early talk of Mancini creating a new and more open Italy was perhaps misplaced. but there’s nothing wrong or unusual about that: most teams that win major tournaments require some luck along the way; character and discipline tend to count more than skill.
Perhaps the lesson is that big tournaments offer very short snapshots and it is dangerous to read too much into them. But maybe there is a problem that, despite all the modernization that Mancini has brought, it is more effective against better teams, or when Italy take an early lead. italy were unbeaten in qualifying, but draws at home against switzerland and bulgaria and away against switzerland and northern ireland meant they finished two points behind switzerland.
What was striking Thursday was how quickly the belief faded. once a few opportunities had been missed, there was an almost palpable lack of conviction. The loss to North Macedonia may have been a shock in the broadest sense, but from the half-hour mark it felt palpable. perhaps some criticism is due towards mancini (it is always worth remembering that, in 2012, about half an hour before his manchester city won the league title by coming from behind to beat qpr 3-2, he was stalking the touchline yelling : “f – you” to each of his players).
but no one thinks he is to blame in the way his deeply uninspiring predecessor, gian piero ventura, was to blame for not making it to the 2018 world cup. the feeling, rather, has been that he he has built on what antonio conte had done, moving italy towards an urgent game, making it more proactive.
perhaps the problem is the lack of players. France, Spain, Germany and even England have radically overhauled their youth development structures and reaped the benefits; the italy team featured a player under 22 years of age. the iconic players are still chiellini at 37 and leonardo bonucci at 34. lorenzo insigne, ciro immobile and federico chiesa all had good euros, but chiesa is injured and the other two are over 30, and frankly there is a reason they play for lazio and napoli instead of the regular champions league challengers.
There is more randomness in international football than in club play, which may be why, so often, the teams that thrive are the ones that most successfully reduce risk. But still, quality matters, and for all the resilience Italy showed last summer, it still lacks the quality to consistently perform.
more soccer coverage:
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