Go­ing out in group stages at past two World Cups was a sign all was not well with the Az­zurri, writes Ian Hawkey

The National - News - - SPORT -

So much for tour­na­ment ex­per­tise. Italy, the land of su­perb man­agers, of re­puted knowhow in what the­o­rists term ‘game man­age­ment’, will be ab­sent from foot­ball’s grand­est show next sum­mer.

Tra­di­tion, his­tory, and pres­tige make theirs the most con­spic­u­ous ab­sence of any na­tion’s at Rus­sia 2018, but the fact is World Cups were be­com­ing a bug­bear for the Az­zurri long be­fore Mon­day night’s elim­i­na­tion via play-off by a sturdy Swe­den.

It is 11 years since Italy lifted their fourth World Cup, tri­umph­ing via penalty shoot-out af­ter a 1-1 draw in Ber­lin with France down to 10 men.

In six World Cup fi­nals matches since then, Italy have won just one and lost three.

They flunked out in the group phase in South Africa in 2010 with­out a sin­gle vic­tory and, af­ter de­feat­ing Eng­land in their open­ing fix­ture in Brazil in 2014, they lost their next two with­out scor­ing.

Their rock-bot­tom felt sud­den on Mon­day night in Mi­lan, be­cause it is 60 years since a World Cup pre­pared to hoist up its flags with­out the Ital­ian tri­color among them, but the de­cline had been sign­posted.

Res­o­lute per­for­mances by the Az­zurri at the last two Euro­pean cham­pi­onships have looked like acts of de­fi­ance.

Italy reached the fi­nal of the con­ti­nen­tal show­piece in 2012, where they lost heav­ily to Spain in Kiev.

The squad who trav­elled to France for Euro 2016 had been waved off, as pun­dits called them “the worst squad ever to rep­re­sent Italy at a ma­jor tour­na­ment”.

An­to­nio Conte guided that Italy to within a penalty shootout of the semi-fi­nals as they were edged out by Ger­many.

Conte bur­nished his fine rep­u­ta­tion on the back of that, and promptly took his next em­ployer, Chelsea, to a Pre­mier League, an­other “mir­a­cle”, as he has taken to de­scrib­ing it.

Ac­tu­ally, when an Ital­ian man­ager picks up a ma­jor club prize it seems any­thing but a mir­a­cle.

Conte suc­ceeded Claudio Ranieri as man­ager of the English cham­pi­ons, and joined Carlo An­celotti at Bay­ern Mu­nich, Mas­si­m­il­iano Allegri at Ju­ven­tus, and Mas­simo Car­rera at Spar­tak Moscow, in win­ning sig­nif­i­cant leagues last sea­son.

There is lit­tle wrong with the part of the Ital­ian sys­tem that pro­duces man­agers.

How­ever, you only had to hear the jeer­ing when the name of Gian Piero Ven­tura was read out at San Siro be­fore the kick off to know that the 69 year old now holds the rare, ig­no­min­ious record of hav­ing failed to reach a World Cup and is deemed a fail­ure.

“I am sorry,” said Ven­tura af­ter his team had, over 95 min­utes, failed to score the sin­gle goal that would at least have matched Swe­den’s 1-0 win the first leg of the play-off.

What Ven­tura did not im­me­di­ately add was his res­ig­na­tion, al­though the idea he will con­tinue in the job, when the likes of An­celotti, dis­missed by Bay­ern last month, is far­fetched. His Italy, slug­gish, mal­adroit, man­aged just three goals in the five games that led to the abyss.

Nowhere was the epi­taph of a limp cam­paign more poignant than in the im­age of Daniele de Rossi, vet­eran an­chor mid­fielder and some­time cen­tral de­fender be­ing in­structed to warm up from the sub­sti­tutes’ bench as Italy sought a break­through against the Swedes.

“But we need a goal!,” protested De Rossi, point­ing to the var­i­ous at­tack­ing play­ers next to him on the bench.

The word ‘Apoc­a­lypse’ is in vogue across the coun­try. The pres­i­dent of the Ital­ian Fed­er­a­tion used it.

He needed some­thing a lit­tle stronger than ‘Dis­as­ter’, which is what hap­pened to Italy in 2010 and 2014.

Which­ever man­ager is en­trusted with tak­ing Italy back to­wards the heavy­weight di­vi­sion of in­ter­na­tional foot­ball must do with­out Gian­luigi Buf­fon, now re­tired from Az­zurri duty, at 39 years old, and tear­ful at the end of his 175th cap.

De Rossi and An­drea Barza­gli, old enough to have won the World Cup in 2006 also look ready for their ar­riverder­cis.

Buf­fon, like De Rossi, pointed ahead, to “tal­ented kids we have”. He was not be­ing sen­ti­men­tal.

The lack­lus­tre Italy of the past 18 months bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to the vi­brant Napoli cur­rently lead­ing Serie A, or the Ju­ven­tus who have reached two of the last three Uefa Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals.

With the right man­ager, Italy will rise again.

It is 60 years since a World Cup pre­pared to hoist up its flags with­out the Ital­ian tri­color among them


Gian­luigi Buf­fon, left, an­nounced his re­tire­ment while Gian Piero Ven­tura’s job as man­ager is un­der threat af­ter Italy’s exit

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