World Cup 2018: Where did it all go wrong for Italy?

Gianluigi Buffon

When Carlo Tavecchio, the president of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), announced the appointment of Giampiero Ventura as Antonio Conte’s successor he promised they would make history together.

A little over a year later, they have done just that but for all the wrong reasons. For the first time since 1958, four-time champions Italy will not appear at the World Cup.

Tavecchio himself said failing to qualify would be like the Apocalypse. Well, it’s Apocalypse Now even if Italy’s elimination in the play-offs to Sweden does not compare with losing to North Korea in 1966.

The past four days feature among the darkest ever experienced by the Azzurri. Up there with Giorgio Chinaglia swearing down the camera as Italy were knocked out of the World Cup in 1974, and other group stage eliminations at the hands of New Zealand in 2010 and Costa Rica four years ago.

Where did it all go wrong?

Giampiero Ventura

Together with Gianluigi Buffon’s tears, the image that will live longest in the memory from Monday night is one of Ventura’s assistants going over to defensive midfielder Daniele de Rossi to ask him to warm up.

“Why the hell should I go on?” he responded. “We don’t need a draw here. We need to win.” De Rossi looked down the bench and gestured in forward Lorenzo Insigne’s direction, as if to say he was the one who should be coming on.

Insigne is Italy’s most skilful and imaginative player. He has inspired Napoli to the top of Serie A. But Ventura disregarded the 26-year-old when Italy needed him most. It was the most telling show of frustration with the manager.

Senior players already held an emergency meeting after the draw with Macedonia in Turin last month. Reports emerged of another on the team’s return from the first leg of the play-off in Stockholm when the manager was implored to change system and selection. It’s alleged Ventura threatened to resign before being talked out of it.

His tactics were again unsatisfactory on Monday. Playing 3-5-2 meant there was no place for Insigne and it was clear soon after kick off that deploying three centre-backs was unnecessary against a team camped inside their own penalty area. More variation was needed. Italy crossed and crossed and crossed, which was fine by the Swedes. Their towering defenders headed everything away.

Greater than the sum of their parts under Conte, the same group of players has been so much less under the uninspiring Ventura. Players in excellent form for their clubs looked shadows of themselves for their country. Out of his depth, Ventura has cut an increasingly confused figure since the 3-0 defeat by Spain in Madrid.

It’s enough to think Italy used three different systems in their past four games. Players who had never previously been considered like Simone Verdi, Jorginho, and Manolo Gabbiadini were thrown in at the deep end. Only Jorginho swam which made his exclusion over the past year all the more mind-boggling.

Counting the cost

It’s estimated the national team will miss out on 100m euros in potential revenue by failing to qualify for the World Cup. Bonuses from sponsors, TV and prize money will go untapped. The FIGC’s bargaining position with Puma and other sponsors will be weakened when they next sit round the negotiating table.

The television rights for the World Cup have lost half their value in Italy. The number of consumers buying TVs – up 4% during Euro 2016 – will remain where it was either side of that competition.

The boost World Cup participation would have had on the economy won’t be felt. As La Repubblica notes, GDP increased by 1% when Italy last won the competition in 2006, which seems a negligible figure but amounts to around 16bn euros.

The new contract the FIGC gave Ventura in August will also need paying up even though it includes a break clause for failing to qualify for the World Cup. It’s thought he has yet to resign because he wants to discuss his severance package, which has gone down as well as his decision not to speak to Italy’s state broadcaster RAI or Sky Italia after Monday’s game.

What next?

Andrea Barzagli (left), Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini

Once Ventura’s pay-out is sorted the search for a new manager will begin. Carlo Ancelotti is available and it seems like the right time in his career for this job.

The three remaining members of Italy’s 2006 World Cup success, Gianluigi Buffon, De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli, all announced their international retirement on Monday.

Giorgio Chiellini wants more time to decide. He believes Italian football needs to take a step back in order to move forward and there is a sense this represents an opportunity to push the reset button.

Of course the same was said after Italy’s group stage exit from the last World Cup when Cesare Prandelli resigned and Tavecchio’s predecessor Giancarlo Abete followed. Little changed.

Tavecchio promised to follow the German model and open national football centres across the country. Only 30 have opened, 10 in the past six weeks. Way short of the 200 projected.

His other pledge to reduce Serie A from a 20 to an 18-team league, prioritising quality over quantity, has also gone nowhere. Teams in the bottom half are like turkeys being asked to vote for Christmas.

Governed by self-interest, the system as a whole needs an overhaul. But the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater.

Serie A is showing signs of life. Juventus have reached two Champions League finals in three years. The Premier League, by comparison, hasn’t had a finalist since 2012.

It has overtaken the Bundesliga in the Uefa coefficient. Roma beat Chelsea 3-0 in the Champions League, Atalanta trounced Everton in the Europa League by the same scoreline and Pep Guardiola considers Napoli one of the best teams in Europe.

There are as many Italians as Argentines and Germans on the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or and the next generation coming through is the source of cautious optimism, although a new Totti, Del Piero or Maldini is still to be found.

Italy reached the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championships and the Under-20 World Cup. The class of 2001 is generating excitement with Genoa’s Pietro Pellegri making his Serie A debut at 15 and Moise Kean at 16.

That’s not to say there aren’t major issues. But as Massimo Gramellini wrote in Il Corriere della Sera: “It’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of a World Cup.”

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BBC Sport – Sport

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