MILAN: Players from both teams slumped to the ground, the Swedes in exhausted ecstasy, the Italians in losers’ agony.
Italian football boss Carlo Tavecchio said recently that failure to qualify for the World Cup would be the apocalypse and his worst fears came true on a starry night in Milan on Monday as they missed out on the finals for the first time in 60 years.
A desperate 0-0 draw at home to a defiant, belligerent and technically inferior Sweden ended the four-time world champions’ hopes of reaching next year’s finals in Russia and with it the international careers of several of Italy’s biggest names.
The Swedes, whose starting lineup included only four players based with teams in Europe’s so-called big five leagues, will take their place after qualifying for the first time since 2006.
Italy’s 1-0 aggregate defeat in their European playoff, after Jakob Johansson’s deflected strike in Stockholm, is likely to go down alongside elimination by North Korea at the 1966 World Cup as one of their greatest football debacles.
The Italians have only failed to qualify for the tournament once before — missing out on the 1958 finals in Sweden — after not entering the first World Cup in 1930.
“It’s a black moment for our game,” Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi said. “Unfortunately there will be a lot of time to analyse it. The only thing I can say is that we showed few ideas and not much in the way of tactics.”
There was disbelief among the 75,000 fans in the San Siro with 14.8 million stunned Italians watching their national fall from grace on television.
The Sweden players ran over to celebrate with the traveling fans. The Italians looked on in shock and disbelief or put their head in their hands as though it were too painful to watch.
“We all need to look within and find a way to bounce back,” defender Giorgio Chiellini said. “We need to get back to the level we deserve to be at.”
It was also the tear-jerking end to the career of their 39-year-old goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon who made his Italy debut 20 years ago against Russia — on the last occasion that Italy had to face a playoff for a World Cup place.
“It’s upsetting that my last Italy game coincides with our elimination for the World Cup,” said Buffon, a World Cup winner in 2006. “That’s my only regret, because time goes by and its cruel but that’s how it is. Sport teaches you to lose and win as a group and share joy and pain. The coach has the same degree of blame as us.”
De Rossi, Italy’s fearsome bearded midfielder who was surprisingly left on the bench on Monday, also announced his international retirement at 34 after 117 appearances. Chiellini and fellow defender Andrea Barzagli also hung up their Azzurri jerseys.
However, Gian Piero Ventura, at 69 the oldest coach Italy has ever had, refused to confirm that he would step down, saying he needed to talk to the federation first.
“Resign? I don’t know. I have to evaluate an infinity of things. I have not yet spoken to the president,” said Ventura, whose deadpan style could not be further removed from the high-energy approach of his predecessor Antonio Conte.
“It doesn’t depend on me, I’m not in the state of mind to face this question. It’s a very heavy result to bear, because I was absolutely convinced that we had this ferocious desire to overcome the obstacle.”
The Italian football federation called crisis talks for Wednesday with Ventura expected to be sacked.
“We are deeply affected and disappointed,” said federation president Tavecchio. “It’s a sporting failure that requires shared solutions by everyone.”
For many the defeat reflected a profound malaise in Italian football with the 2006 World Cup triumph having been followed by group stage exits from the last two World Cups.
“It’s the biggest Italian sports catastrophe of the last 60 years, which cannot be blamed on the coach,” former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni told Rai Radio 1, suggesting a total clearout of the hierarchy.
“The results are missing at the national level, clubs, from grassroots level basically. There is a problem in Italian football, that concerns the management, down the ranks.
“A new president, a new coach, are needed. After [Alessandro] Del Piero and [Francesco] Totti there is a fundamental problem in Italian football lacking authority.”
Ventura made four changes to the team which lost 1-0 in Stockholm on Friday in the first leg and which was fiercely criticised for its lack of flair in attack.
Brazilian-born midfielder Jorginho was thrust into his first competitive international while Napoli’s flamboyant winger Lorenzo Insigne was once again on the bench. After a scrappy opening 20 minutes, Italy took control and pressed forward in waves.
They had penalty appeals turned down and were repeatedly denied by outstanding Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen but were also let down by some desperately poor finishing and final passes, possibly born of desperation.
As the game wore on, Italy’s moves became more rushed and their passing increasingly sloppy and the clear-cut chances dried up.
Sweden coach Jan Andersson admitted his side had to cling on to their first-leg lead.
“We had no weapons left. We just had to sit there and hope that we could hang on,” he said. “We couldn’t do it in any other way, they are so skilful.”
There is likely to be some long and deep soul-searching once the dust has settled as Italians wonder how it all came to this.
“Italy, this is the apocalypse,” ran a headline on the website of sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. “Wasted chances, a bit of bad luck but zero goals in 180 minutes against the Swedes, who will go to Russia.”
Corriere dello Sport said it will be painful to be on the sidelines when the action starts in Russia in June.
“It is an intolerable football shame, an indelible stain,” the newspaper said. “It is over. Apocalypse, tragedy, catastrophe.”
Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2017