For the first time since 1958, Italy will not be at the World Cup finals. After a qualification campaign that never saw them look confident or cohesive, the Azzurri will spend next summer watching the tournament on television. As they do so, the players will reflect on their part in what has undoubtedly been one of the worst two-year stints in the history of a proud national team of one of the game’s most prominent footballing countries.
Before looking at the sorry state in to which Calcio has descended, let us take a moment to praise the side which ultimately knocked Italy out. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden reinvented themselves as a well-organised, hard-working and energetic team who ran tirelessly to implement Janne Andersson’s tactical plan.
As a unit they held the Azzurri at bay for over 180 minutes, keeping calm and never letting a vociferously partisan San Siro affect them, the visitors looking in control even as their hosts poured forward with a passionate crowd roaring their approval.
But when all is said and done, the fact that a run of being present at 14 consecutive tournaments has come to an end has very little to do with the effort of the proud Scandinavians. Instead, the blame should be laid entirely at the feet of one man: Italy’s Commissario Tecnico Giampiero Ventura.
Forget the ridiculous complaints about foreign players damaging the development of homegrown Serie A talent. Forget penalty shouts for a foul on Matteo Darmian or even the shot-stopping heroics of Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen because, in truth, the work of the man on the sidelines hindered his team in almost every match of his tenure.
He arrived promising to bring through the exciting crop of attacking young players overlooked by his predecessor Antonio Conte and insisted his lack of success at club level would not affect his ability to lead the Azzurri. Yet Ventura failed summarily to do the former and, as time wore on, he also proved that the latter did influence his choices.
With time ticking away on Italy’s qualification hopes, the 69-year-old remained as cautious as you would expect from a man whose five previous jobs were with Messina, Hellas Verona, Pisa, Bari and Torino. The team ended the match with three central defenders on the pitch and with Lorenzo Insigne – arguably Serie A’s most in-form attacking player – as an unused substitute.
Napoli’s Jorginho finally made his full debut and shone in the first half, his passing the reason for the team’s best chances, as he showed why he should have been part of the squad long ago. His omission was baffling, but given that Ventura played just two central midfielders in Madrid against Spain, it was by no means his worst decision.
That suicidal 4-2-4 formation was overrun by La Furia Roja and left Italy to face the playoffs, where the Coach continued to make frankly ridiculous decisions and comments. In the first leg he sent on a bemused Insigne to play as a central midfielder, only to express his “surprise” at the physical approach of Sweden, something any casual observer of the sport would have fully expected.
The only hope was that the players would manage to overturn the result in spite of his errors, but it proved impossible and now Italy must face the reality of just how far they have fallen. If nothing else, Ventura’s time in charge must serve as a warning of what can happen with the wrong man at the helm.
Those tasked with rebuilding the national team must recognise that this failure has brought an unacceptable and unforgivable end to Gigi Buffon’s stellar international career, that a generation of players have to rediscover every quality that made the Azzurri a side to fear. They’ve got a long way to go.