Italian football at crossroads after Azzurri abject defeat

Milan – Italian football was left reeling Tuesday as a dismal 0-0 draw against Sweden condemned the Azzurri to miss their first football World Cup in more than half a century. The Italians had trailed 1-0 after the opening leg in Stockholm last week and needed to score to have any hope of progressing. The aberration that followed on Monday night in Milano has been described as apocalyptic throughout the Italian media.  

 Prior to kickoff in Milan, players including the Azzurri captain and figurehead Gianluigi Buffon had called for calm and encouraged the Italian fans to stay positive. The goalkeeper called on supporters from all of Italy’s individual clubs to come wearing blue rather than their club colours, as a show of solidarity and also insisted that any inquests wait until after the game.

 It was a very different Buffon who faced the cameras following the full-time whistle. The Juventus shot stopper has formed an immense part of Italy’s success in recent years and lifted the World Cup in 2006. However, in an emotional interview Buffon announced his retirement from the international stage and bemoaned the fact that it had to end in this fashion.

 “It is upsetting that my last match decided that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Not for myself but for Italy. We blew something that could have been so great. The only regret is that it ended this way.”

 “There must be no scapegoats,” added the outgoing captain. “We win together and we lose together.”

 Buffon is not the only stalwart who decided to hang up the boots following last night’s result. Juventus teammate Andrea Barzagli and Roma lynchpin Daniele de Rossi also announced their retirement with defender Giorgio Chiellini expected to follow suit.

 The result has heaped pressure on beleaguered manager Giampiero Ventura with the coach expected to resign following meetings with the Italian Football Federation president this week. Ventura has been under fire for his defensive attitude and stubborn team selections.

 An unusual moment late in the game did a lot to sum up Ventura’s relationship with his players as when De Rossi was asked to warm up, he pointed instead at Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne, a player Ventura refused to call upon despite pressure from Italian media and supporters.

“We have this plan to warm up three at a time, then after five minutes we change and another three go,” said de Rossi, the Roma captain. “I just said we were near the end and had to win, so send the strikers to warm up. I pointed to Insigne too. At the time I just thought perhaps it was better that Insigne come on instead.

 The match against the Swedish side had a familiar feeling for the Azzurri faithful. Italy once again failed to find the net in the 0-0 draw and despite entering the World Cup playoff matches as top seeds, can hardly lament their luck given recent results and performances.

 Whilst it was always going to be a challenging task to finish above Spain in their group, the Azzurri ended the campaign a distant five points behind their rivals, after a poor run of fixtures including a 3-0 loss to Spain, slim 1-0 wins over Israel and Albania, and a 1-1 draw with Macedonia.

 The results point to a chronic lack of form and underline the coach’s inability to combine the spine of the team with young talent. Following the decisions of Buffon and his fellow retirees, any would-be manager will now have the opportunity to rebuild the side almost from scratch.

 The most popular name in the metaphorical hat will undoubtedly be Carlo Ancelotti after the former Bayern Munich man left the German giants earlier this year. However, it remains to be seen whether someone with Ancelotti’s track record would take on such a huge project with the Italian national side when he could have his pick of club jobs around Europe.

 Italian football now finds itself at a crossroads. There are commentators who believe that this result will result in a blessing in disguise, as a younger coach will be able to come in without the pressure of a dressing room full of World Cup veterans and revitalise the team in a way similar to France post their 2010 debacle. 

 Fast forward seven years from a World Cup labeled as a disaster for France and the team has just blitzed qualification to go into next year’s World Cup finals as one of the hot favourites. Their team includes more superstars than one would care to mention: Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé to name but a few and it is hoped that these players will trigger a period of French domination.

 It is important however, that Italy heed the lessons learned by Dutch supporters in recent years. Holland finished third at the World Cup in Brazil during the summer of 2014 but since then, the squad has endured dismal qualifying campaigns, missing out on both the European Championships in 2016 and next year’s World Cup in Russia.

 At the end of his interview, Gianluigi Buffon offered hope to Italian fans, insisting that the next generation could come back from this failure.

 °There’s definitely a future because we have that strength and pride,” said Buffon. A lot of these kids are talented including Gianluigi Donnarumma (Buffon’s de facto replacement) and Mattia Perin. I wish them all the best.”