Ciao and good riddance, Italy
SWEET, sweet karma. Oh how Socceroos fans must have enjoyed that one.
Italy, the four-time FIFA World Cup champions and Australia’s 2006 nemesis will not contest the 2018 World Cup in Russia after falling 1-0 to Sweden on aggregate on Tuesday morning.
The ‘Azzurri’, who last tasted success in the 2006 iteration in Germany, will not send a team to the world’s biggest sporting spectacle for just the third time in the tournament’s history.
And if you ask Australian fans their opinion, they will point to the famed round of 16 incident 11 years ago as reason for celebration at the Italians’ expense.
For those who are unaware, the Socceroos met the eventual champions in the first round of the knockout stages.
The favourites were forced to play with 10 men for the majority of the contest, when defender Marco Materazzi was shown red by referee Luis Medina Cantalejo.
It meant the underdog Aussies were provided an opportunity to knock a world football heavyweight out of the competition, and more than once they came close to doing so.
Yet with the scores locked at 0-0 and the game appearing to be headed for extra time, the Italians were awarded a penalty which still divides opinion more than a decade later.
Deep into stoppage time, Socceroos captain Lucas Neill looked to dispossess Italian fullback Fabio Grosso of the ball inside the penalty area.
Neill missed with the tackle, but the Italian continued his run into the Australian captain and appeared to dive for the spot kick.
Cantalejo dutifully awarded the Azzurri a penalty, and Fancesco Totti scored from the spot to send the Italians through to the final eight and the Aussies packing.
That decision is one which still haunts Socceroos fans and players to this day; the second-best performance by an Australian football team at a World Cup ended by a highly debatable, last-minute penalty.
Now it is the Italians’ turn to feel hard done by, after multiple penalty shouts were waved away in a frustrating second leg 0-0 draw with Sweden yesterday.
The woes of the Italians also puts into perspective the current ‘plight’ of the Socceroos’ own World Cup qualifying position.
Ange Postecoglou’s team have had criticism levelled at them for much of the current qualifying campaign.
Despite a dominant performance against Honduras in the first leg of their playoff tie, the Aussies enter tonight’s contest needing to win in order to qualify for Russia.
Some of the criticism is justified – the Socceroos have one of the worst shots-per-goal averages in football at the moment.
But if a team like Italy, boasting stars the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini is unable to break through for next year’s tournament, perspective must be granted.
World Cup qualification is a difficult ask for even the best teams in world football.
Should the Aussies do as is expected of them tonight and defeat Honduras, it is important fans celebrate the occasion on its merits.
A world football powerhouse will not be in Russia next year, but the Socceroos still might.
DOWN AND OUT: Italian players dejected after the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification playoff, second leg against Sweden at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium in Milan, Italy. Sweden won 1-0 on aggregate.