Only the old-timers can truly tell us how this feels. If you want to know how much failure to qualify for a World Cup hurts, go ask a Nonno. The shell-shocked expression that greets you will tell you everything you need to know. And now our generation stands on the precipice of a similar heartache.
Back in 1958, it was Northern Ireland who thwarted Italian dreams and the finger of blame was pointed firmly at underperforming stars and a Coach who seemed to have lost his way. The echoes of those criticisms could be heard nearly six decades later after Friday night’s display in Sweden. The howls of frustration and fury from anyone who holds the Azzurri dear went ringing around the globe.
The troubling aspect, for many, was more about the performance than the end result. Defeat to a deflected goal, in other circumstances, might have smacked simply of bad luck. And, at 1-0 down with a game to play at San Siro, a comeback should not be beyond any Italy side.
However, if they play in the same limp, lifeless and lacklustre way as they did for much of the first leg, they must be longshots to turn this situation around. It is up to Giampiero Ventura to fire them up and breathe new life into a nation’s hopes of getting to Russia 2018. Unfortunately, he is looking less and less likely to provide that kind of inspiration.
The figure he cut on the sidelines for much of the match at the Friends Arena was a forlorn one. His tactics and team selection were questionable at best and he failed to even use a third substitute that might have helped to get his side back into the game. With every passing moment he looks more and more like an inexperienced swimmer who has ventured into deep waters only to find that somebody has thrown his armbands away.
In truth, the moment he was appointed to replace Antonio Conte was one which provoked plenty of reservations. It’s not that Ventura was a bad club Coach - some of his sides produced lovely football - but simply a question of whether he was ready for a step up to the national team so late in his career. Only a few are still giving him the benefit of the doubt, but even they will be heading for the exit doors if he flops on Monday night.
And therein is the horrible dilemma for many Azzurri fans. Do you cheer for a victory in Milan knowing that it prolongs the current incumbent’s time at the helm? Or do you secretly hope for a defeat that brings his reign to a quick end, but denies you any entertainment next summer? Either way there is a degree of pain to be suffered.
It could be, of course, that he turns things around in the second leg and goes on to have a great World Cup, but the evidence for that is getting thinner than his predecessor’s hair in the mid-1990s.
He was supposed to be the man to bring through our next generation of talent, but there was absolutely nothing to support that view in Sweden. Instead, he produced a garbled set of tactics and confusing team selection that seemed designed to infuriate rather than produce any flowing football. Ironically, the only decent spell of play came shortly before the only goal of the game was conceded.
If the Ventura age does come to a juddering halt in a couple of days’ time, then he should surely not be the only casualty. Carlo Tavecchio, the Federation president who has overseen this debacle, should do the decent thing and step aside as well. He said it would be apocalyptic if Italy failed to qualify and such a cataclysmic event deserves to take more scalps than simply the Coach.
The Azzurri have lost their way after a strong showing at Euro 2016 and to miss Russia 2018 would run the risk of setting La Nazionale back a long way. It would deny a legend like Gigi Buffon a well-earned swansong, while a new generation of talent might miss out on some vital career development.
It took 12 years for Italy to have a decent World Cup after the last time they missed out and none of us wants to suffer that. Because, I can tell you, I have looked into my father’s eyes and seen just how traumatic a footballing experience it was.