Russian Roulette: Sweden and Bitter Biscotto Memory

Two days left before the match that can determine Italy’s chances to participate to the upcoming World Cup in Russia. The seeding pots delivered to the Azzurri Sweden as their final opponent on their way to Moscow, for a two-leg playoff that will be played in Solna this Friday, and then in Milan on November 13.

With international star Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of play due to a terrific knee injury, the Scandinavians look like an approachable opponent – provided that Italy “plays like Italy,” as coach Gian Piero Ventura argued in a pre-match press conference. But that has not been happening for a while, we would add…

Yet, the desire for a cold-served revenge might be the motivating factor to push the Azzurri past the last obstacle, as for 13 years by now – whenever Italy confronts Sweden, the memory goes back to the infamous biscotto (a fixed match) that the Vikings allegedly agreed with neighboring Denmark to push Italy out of the European Championship in 2004.

A funny note: a biscotto is literally a cookie. That’s how you call a match fixing in Italy, the land of food and – much less proudly – a land where fixing match scandals periodically plague competitions, especially in lower divisions. With such a background, it would sound curious for the Italian footballdom to claim to be victim of a fixed match – yet every time that Italy and Sweden’s path cross or even narrowly collide, the shame of the biscotto or the combinata nordica (“Nordic combined,” another pun – as combinata is the Italian for “fixed”) is re-invoked by the Azzurri supporters.

Quality cookies. These are Danish and, by the way, they are delicious!

Here are the facts, for those that in 2004 were not old enough to suffer and get disappointed. In a hot Portuguese summer, a Nazionale trained by football guru Giovanni Trapattoni is participating to the European Championships. Performances, it needs to be said, have been pretty disappointing so far: Italy started with a nil-nil draw with Denmark, with Francesco Totti receiving a three-match ban for spitting at his Dane opponent Christian Poulsen.

The second match against the Suedes ends in another tie, as Imbrahimovic equalises the lead by Antonio Cassano.  Italy-Sweden of 2004 is the game of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s famous taekwondo-kick goal, with the Swedish giant hitting the ball with his heel to put it past a shocked Gianluigi Buffon: A true football gem, but not the direct cause of our feud with the land of IKEA – as the worst is yet to come…

Italy need to win their last match against Bulgaria to keep their hopes of making it past the group stage alive, but a convoluted tournament formula provides a golden chance to Sweden and Denmark: should the Nordic neighbors tie their match 2-2, they would automatically qualify on higher number of goals scored in direct matches, and leave the Azzurri with empty hands.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The Azzurri struggle but somehow come up with a narrow 2-1 win thanks to another superb performance by Cassano. But at the Estadio do Bessa in Porto, the 2-2 between Sweden and Denmark promptly materializes, with the Suedes equalising for the second time only at 89.’ It ends with Antonio Cassano in tears – the young lad far from imagining that what was ending was going to be his best experience ever with the Azzurri (but this is a different story…)

Just to reiterate the concept…

Doubts over a somewhat uncommon score happening exactly when it needed to happen were never fully dissolved, and were rather reinforced as a few years later transcripts from conversations happening on the pitch – with players allegedly agreeing to play for 2-2 – appeared in press. For sure, the Italians did not forget it.

Italy already had a partial chance for redeem last summer, as they were paired again with Sweden in the group stage of Euro 2016 in France. The Azzurri took three points thanks to a lone goal by Eder, and fans on the social media sphere celebrated accordingly:

Don’t get us wrong, this is because we love IKEA in Italy!

But there’s not going to be time for jokes this Friday, as the match at the Friends Arena in Solna has a much bigger importance. Coach Ventura seems to have that clear in mind, and is likely to put tactical experiments aside and rely on a solid 3-5-2 module – the one that brought Italy up to the Quarter Finals in last year’s European Competition.

The former Juventus block – Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini – will lead the defense, with record-capped Gianluigi Buffon to guard the goal. The match with Sweden has a special meaning for Juventus’ eternal goalkeeper, as a 19-year-old Buffon made his Nazionale debut exactly 20 years ago, in another World Cup playoff. On that occasion, Italy eliminated Russia to book their ticket to France 1998.

Leonardo Spinazzola and Antonio Candreva should play on the two midfield sides, with Marco Parolo, Daniele De Rossi, and Marco Verratti to cover the center – and the Paris St. Germain playmaker ready to advance, and play as an offensive midfielder if needed.

High hopes are placed on the two strikers, with Simone Zaza joining Ciro Immobile. The Lazio forward – 14 goals in 11 Serie A matches played – was in tip top shape before a small injury kept him at bay in the last week, but he did get some time to rest. Simone Zaza – whom has not been seen wearing an Azzurri jersey since the days of his infamous penalty missed against Germany at Euro 2016 – regained his spot thanks to a stunning season start while playing for Spanish side Valencia.

Confidence is high among the Azzurri clan, as it should be in view of such a key appointment. Leonardo Bonucci paid respect to Sweden, but said that “failing to qualify is not an option for Italy.” Daniele De Rossi argued that “missing the World Cup would stain my career.” And Coach Ventura claimed to have “never considered the hypothesis of not making it to Russia.”

In two days, we will have the first answers. No biscotto possible this time.