- Italy had failed to qualify for the World Cup just once before, missing out on the one in 1958
- Italy’s last World Cup triumph was perhaps the unusually extended end of the cycle for their golden age
- There was always a sense of inevitability threatening to strike them
Secondo la paga, il lavoro. How it came back to haunt the Azzurri six months ago!
Back on November 13 at the San Siro, the image of an emotionally broken Gianluigi Buffon, tearfully bidding goodbye to his international career, encapsulated the despair and disbelief which followed Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades, after they lost the two-legged play-off tie 0-1 on aggregate to Sweden. Buffon had earlier planned the perfect farewell: Hanging up his Italy gloves exactly where it started two decades ago, in Russia, and becoming the first player to take part in six World Cups.
Instead, there he stood, in Milan’s gigantic stadium, stunned and shattered. “Apocalypse”, ran the headline of the country’s chief sports paper La Gazzetta dello Sport. It was indeed a catastrophic fall from grace.
A World Cup without Italy is like a pizza margherita without cheese. It’s unusual, unexpected and odd. Bizarre, even. The Azzurri had failed to qualify for the World Cup just once before, missing out on the one in 1958. They did not take part in the first World Cup in 1930.
But over these years, they have not only won the coveted crown four times and finished runners-up twice, they have also defined the game by introducing a unique school of football culture. Usually a slow-starter, they have developed an art of knowing how to survive the tournament — the farther they go the more clinical and efficient they look. And all along, they represent a system and style which give them a unique identity. From their art of defending through catenaccio (Giacinto Facchetti, Claudio Gentile, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini to name some of its world-class exponents) to giving birth to some of the most cerebral front men like Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo — Italian football stands for an inherent paradox.
A paradox which also begets a winning formula so unique that very few teams have been able to match it in the past. Therein also lies the plight of Italy’s present. Something that many may have seen coming; something that makes you realize that you get what you pay for.
Italy’s last World Cup triumph in 2006 was perhaps the unusually extended end of the cycle for their golden age in the 1990s. But what was widely expected to be the harbinger of new changes and designs, the old cycle was allowed to continue even after 2006, gradually letting rust develop over it. The writing was always on the wall but the mandarins of Italian football refused to read it. Take for example, how they went on to fare in the next two World Cups. As defending champions, they lost their pride in no time after being eliminated in the group stage without a win in the 2010 World Cup. Four years later in Brazil, they again returned home having stumbled in the group stage.
There was always a sense of inevitability threatening to strike them. They somehow managed to survive the earlier tests but could not escape the unescapable in Milan last November.
On that dreadful night at the San Siro, Giorgio Chiellini had lamented how ‘Guardiolismo’ – Pep Guardiola’s footballing ideology – was destroying the team’s essential fabric of defending as everyone now wants to be involved in setting the tone of play, sacrificing the very basic of protecting their zone. Manager Giampiero Ventura was also made the easy scapegoat, resulting in his sacking.
But Italy’s problems run deeper than all this. The Azzurri have long stopped producing the next generation of Pirlos and Baggios. The Serie A has long fallen from the pedigree of major European leagues and suffered from mediocrity and stagnancy. Almost all clubs in Italy are now struggling to stay financially viable in the face of Premier League and La Liga’s rise and inviting foreign investors for their survival. Add to this the usual issues with racism and hooliganism, hindering the game’s natural growth in the country.
Italian football is no more beautiful. It no longer boasts of being a global brand. Thanks to the arrival of Maradona, Van Basten, Gullit and Zidane in the ’80s, Italian football has never felt this compulsion of selling its narrative to the international audience. In absence of stars and home-grown talent, Italy has sadly but certainly lost its way and wonder.
Buffon has been the link between Italy’s glorious past and its pitiable plight. With his retirement, the passing of the old guard has arrived. Italy refused to accept the winds of change post 2006 triumph. Will newly-appointed manager Roberto Mancini and the powers-that-be in Italian football respond to the need of the hour? Or will it be another glitch-in-the-matrix moment?
The answer — or the destiny — is in the hands of the Azzurri.