No youth, no hope for Italy

The New Paper - - SPORTS -

Az­zurri de­cline was a decade in the mak­ing

mu­si­cal may­hem for mil­i­tary ser­vice. Al­most 60 years later, the Ital­ians are swop­ping tick­ets to Rus­sia for an ex­tended stay in Heart­break Ho­tel.

They join Hol­land, the United States and Chile on the side­lines, but this feels dif­fer­ent.

Pic­tur­ing a World Cup with­out Italy is like pic­tur­ing a heavy­weight di­vi­sion with­out Muham­mad Ali.

They helped to de­fine the com­pe­ti­tion, lift­ing the golden bauble four times.

At a time when the ex­tra­or­di­nary seems or­di­nary, it would be easy to lump the Ital­ians in with the other bizarre events of re­cent times, but they shouldn’t be. Their dis­as­ter was at least a decade in the mak­ing.

Since they last won the tro­phy in 2006, the Ital­ians have won just a sin­gle match at the World Cup Fi­nals.

If they qual­ify for Qatar 2022, they’ll be look­ing to win only their sec­ond tour­na­ment match in 16 years.

It’s an alarm­ing statis­tic and one that should be noted in the Chelsea board­room.

An­to­nio Conte’s hyp­notic charisma and end­less train­ing drills squeezed ev­ery last drop of tal­ent out of an age­ing, lim­ited squad at Euro 2016.

His suc­ces­sor, Gian Piero Ven­tura, will al­most cer­tainly be re­moved af­ter a wretch­edly con­ser­va­tive cam­paign, but he in­her­ited a creak­ing gang of pen­sion­ers.

In the first leg in Swe­den, seven starters were over 30. Three of them were at least 33.

COUN­TRY FOR OLD MEN

De­spite the first-leg loss, six of the veter­ans still started the goal­less sec­ond leg yes­ter­day (Sin­ga­pore time).

Un­like Ger­many, France, Bel­gium and even Eng­land, to a de­gree, a youth de­vel­op­ment revo­lu­tion is yet to take place in Ital­ian foot­ball.

The Serie A in­cu­ba­tors have stalled.

A tear­ful Gian­luigi Buf­fon de­served a bet­ter re­tire­ment party af­ter 175 caps. But the big­ger ques­tion is why was the 39-year-old al­lowed to reign, un­chal­lenged, for so long?

The same could be said of Gior­gio Chiellini, 33, Leonardo Bonucci, 30, An­drea Barza­gli, 36, and Daniele de Rossi, 34.

Their col­lec­tive pedi­gree was rarely in doubt, which was for­tu­nate as there are still no ob­vi­ous and out­stand­ing can­di­dates to re­place any of them.

The old guard has al­lowed the Ital­ians to get by for the best part of the decade, but one of the long­est In­dian sum­mers in in­ter­na­tional foot­ball has fi­nally come to an end.

Italy was a coun­try for old men in ev­ery sense.

In the dugout, a then-67year-old jour­ney­man re­placed Conte af­ter Euro 2016.

Ven­tura’s coach­ing high­light in a 41-year ca­reer was pro­mo­tion from Serie C in 1996. The Az­zurri needed a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. They hired a re­ac­tionary.

If Ven­tura’s hap­less, un­ad­ven­tur­ous and en­tirely pre­dictable ten­ure could be summed up in one hu­mil­i­at­ing mo­ment, it came in the sec­ond half against Swe­den.

Un­able to score, Italy’s 3-5-2 ul­tra-cau­tious line-up had al- ready re­sorted to pump­ing long balls to the iso­lated Ciro Im­mo­bile.

Ven­tura or­dered de Rossi, a de­fen­sive mid­fielder, to warm up. De Rossi re­fused. He was caught on cam­era say­ing: “Why the **** should I warm up? We need to win, not draw.”

An­drea Belotti and Stephan El Shaarawy were even­tu­ally sent on but Lorenzo In­signe, per­haps Italy’s most cre­ative foot­baller, never left the bench.

Ven­tura did pick Jorginho, Italy’s best per­former on the night, but the coach’s in­abil­ity to trust the few mer­cu­rial artists at his dis­posal en­sured a drab, unin­spir­ing cam­paign cul­mi­nated in his down­fall.

Italy picked the wrong coach who then picked the wrong play­ers at the wrong time, a time when in­ter­na­tional ri­vals were in­vest­ing in — and pro­mot­ing — younger tal­ents.

The rest of the world had moved on. The Ital­ians hadn’t.

In the end, old age de­feated the Az­zurri.

npsports@sph.com.sg

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