On September 1st, when this football season started, Italy were the reigning European Champions. Led by Roberto Mancini, they had clinched the European throne after a thrilling tournament, shocking the continent with their vibrant play and rock-solid team spirit.
The team was undefeated in 35 games and en-route to set a world record for the longest non-losing streak in international football.
Mancini was on a mission to redeem Italy after their disastrous failure to qualify for World Cup 2018 – the first time in 60 years for the four-time World Champions. And, after collecting three wins out of the first three Qualifiers games, he was bound to succeed. The only legitimate candidate to spoil their party was Switzerland, which the Azzurri mercilessly thrashed only a couple months earlier during their winning European campaign.
What could go wrong?
Well, Italy could go wrong.
Fast forward to today, as the country wakes up from yet another disaster and prepares to watch the World Cup from TV for the second time in a row. Italy did Italy again. Stronger against the strong when things get really tough. But uncapable of finishing the job in a qualification pool that they held on to the palm of their hand, tying four of the last five games and seeing the Swiss grab the first spot and the ticket to Qatar.
Then, ultimately digging their own grave when all they had to do was beating North Macedonia – a team that sits 60 positions below in the FIFA ranking – in their Playoff Semi Final.
Italy did not underestimate the game. The intensity was there as the Azzurri tried everything that they could to open a breach in the brave North Macedonian wall. The count of corners read 16-0 in Italy’s favor. They kept the ball for 66% of the playing time. Numbers at hand, it was an absolute domination.
It was Italy’s own limits, both mental and technical, that ultimately dug the Azzurri’s grave. In the wake of one of the most humiliating losses in their history, the world of calcio finds itself again in the need of rethinking what is wrong with their football system.
It is a football movement that has not produced a real top-class player since perhaps the days of Roberto Baggio. One that could make a difference in a tricky and tense game like the battle with North Macedonia last night.
The triumph in Wembley could only hide it, just like the 2006 apotheosis in Berlin had done – and, it was followed by many years of miserable results for the Azzurri. Every time Italy added some silverware to their glorious cabinet trophy in the past few decades, it was when external circumstances molded an unshakable team spirit and built a solid collettivo, one that could get the best out of a football system that is old-fashioned, self-conceited and ultimately unfit for today’s football needs.
But the collettivo cannot always be the solution.
Now, as Aleksandar Trajkovsi tucked the ball into the bottom right corner of our net, everybody was suddenly and brutally forced to recall a few things.
They had to recall that, if Gianluigi Donnarumma didn’t leave Milan only to become the subject of a nerve-wracking turnover with Keylor Navas at PSG, perhaps he would have managed to keep his spectacular form from last season and stretch his hand just a bit more to reach Trajkovski’s shot.
That Jorginho, who missed two penalties in a row during the Qualifiers that could have sent Italy directly to the World Cup, is a very good player but surely not a world class one (seriously, the Ballon d’Or?).
That there must be a reason why Lorenzo Insigne’s first destination away form his safe heaven in Naples will not be Real Madrid or Manchester City but, with all due respect, Toronto FC. That the same goes for Ciro Immobile, who found his dimension as a top scorer at Lazio but failed to shine everywhere else – including and, moreover, when wearing the Nazionale jersey.
That Domenico Berardi, who is considered one of the top Italian strikers and at least tried to do something last night, has basically zero international experience as he only played in Serie A mid-table Sassuolo.
That hastily delivering an Italian passport to the good Joao Pedro would just not solve Italy’s attacking woes. Incidentally, the Cagliari striker’s bizarre parable (he was sent in just a couple minutes before Trajkovski’s screamer…) is a perfect sum up of this Italian psychodrama.
As Italians, we need to get over the fact that we have not been a top tier football country for ages. Perhaps we never were, or at least not in the sense that we would like to think. Italy achieved their best results when all odds were against them.
In 1982, the Azzurri won the World Cup in the wake of a betting scandal that seriously damaged the international credibility of the Italian football system. A similar coincidence happened in 2006, when the Calciopoli scandal hit the Azzurri’s pride and pulled the best out of them. Roberto Mancini built Italy’s triumph at Euro 2020 on his boys’ willingness to redeem themselves from the missed World Cup humiliation.
When the hardship is over, though, and we get back to normal times, the tension fades and our endemic limits re-emerge. Perhaps the easiest things are the most difficult for us to do. More likely, we just need to realize that this is Italy’s international dimension and that the victories are just a sweet, refreshing interlude.
Since football restarted post World War II, it took Italy 20 years to go past the World Cup first stage again, a hiatus during which the Azzurri failed to qualify for the tournament once and even suffered a setback as shameful as last night’s by losing to minnows North Korea.
This is nothing new. Italy’s football history is one of multiple disappointments and a few unexpected, exciting victories. That is way more than many countries will ever get – so thank the football gods for that. But, if we want even more than that, we need to rethink our calcio movement from its roots.