The End: Italy struggles to come to terms with failure

While most soccer-loving fans around the globe will be glued to their televisions next year during the World Cup, restaurants and cinemas around Italy might find themselves extra busy during the summer.

That’s because the Azzurri, who have won four World Cups and are almost always considered to be one of the favorites at major soccer events, has failed to qualify for next year’s tournament and won’t be going to Russia.

“I’ll still watch the World Cup when I can, but I’ll give precedence to going out for dinner, drinks, to the cinema and going to the beach and playing sports outside,” said Marco Angelelli, a 31-year-old shop assistant from Salento in southern Italy who now lives in Milan.

“I’ll watch if I’m with friends who are watching, but otherwise, I won’t really care,” said Giancarlo Esposito, a retired architect from Milan. 

“If your team isn’t in it, what sense is there?”

Local newspapers spared no words yesterday in describing their failure to make the finals for the first time in six decades.

The Gazzetta dello Sport headline read Fine (The End) — in big, block letters, while Turin daily La Stampa wrote “Apocalypse Azzurra.”

Rome daily Il Messaggero called it “A national shame,” and Rome sports daily Corriere dello Sport said “Everyone out.”

“It’s one of the darkest pages of our sporting history,” Gazzetta editor Andrea Monti wrote in a front-page editorial yesterday. “A brutal slap beyond the incalculable harm for a country that lives and breathes soccer.”

Widely criticised for his tactics, the Gazzetta gave Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura a lowly three out of 10 in its famous report card for the game.

“He will go down as one of the worst national team coaches of all time, if not the worst,” the report card read.

Former Italian soccer federation and Italian Olympic Committee president Franco Carraro estimated that the failed qualification will cost the country between €500-600 million. “If you add the indirect impact, it will definitely exceed a billion,” Carraro said.

Italian daily La Repubblica noted that purchases of televisions in Italy increased 4% when Italy competed in last year’s European Championship. If Italy had qualified, the cost of domestic TV rights for the World Cup were estimated at €175 million. Now they could be worth half that.

The national team’s contract with shirt supplier Puma, worth €18.7 million per season, will also likely be revised.

Already a nationwide probe is underway as to the reasons for failure to qualify. The best players in the world go elsewhere? The best coaches in Italy emigrate? The stadiums around the country are falling apart?

“It’s time to make choices that perhaps in the past people didn’t have the courage to make,” Italian Sports Minister Luca Lotti said.

“This world needs to be revised from the youth levels on up to Serie A.”

The start of Italy’s decline can be traced back to 2006 — the year Italy won its fourth World Cup. That was also the year of the “Calciopoli” refereeing scandal that saw Juventus stripped of two Serie A titles and relegated to the second division as punishment.

A number of top players left Juventus after the scandal and the “Old Lady” of Italian soccer required half a dozen years to recover.

In the meantime, England’s Premier League emerged as the sport’s richest domestic competition while Italy was eliminated in the first round of the last two World Cups.

Any Italian coach who moves to England raves about the facilities and the packed stadiums. It’s the complete opposite of Serie A, where most of the big squads play in dilapidated stadiums that were last renovated for the 1990 World Cup — the last major tournament Italy hosted.

Of Italy’s six biggest clubs — Juventus, Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, Lazio, and Napoli — only Juventus has a new stadium that it operates on its own.

Complicated laws and a lack of funding have prevented clubs from building new stadiums. In 2014, the American owners of Roma presented plans for a new stadium but haven’t been able to break ground yet due to a series of bureaucratic delays.

Although Italy is no longer the draw it was once for the best in the world, it still has a large contingent of foreign-born players. And that is stunting the development of the country’s talent.

Juventus have been the Champions League runners-up in two of the past three seasons, but the Turin squad has heavily relied on Argentinian forwards for its success: Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, and Paulo Dybala.

Federico Bernardeschi, one of Italy’s most talented young forwards, joined Juventus in a €40 million transfer this season but has been largely relegated to the bench. So it’s no wonder that Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura used Bernardeschi only in a bench role in the scoreless play-off second leg against Sweden on Monday.

The only Italian who starts for Serie A leader Napoli is winger Lorenzo Insigne, who was also reduced to a bench role under Ventura in a widely criticised decision.

With captain Gianluigi Buffon, defender Andrea Barzagli, and midfielder Daniele De Rossi having announced their international retirements, Italy needs a new generation of Azzurri to step up. And the younger players need space in an improved Serie A to become competitive.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic will have his contract extended after qualifying for the World Cup within weeks of being hired. It is the second straight time Croatia advanced to the World Cup with a coach appointed late in the qualifiers.


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