The worst thing about Italy missing the 2018 World Cup is how avoidable it all was. It felt like watching that meme with the little dog sitting inside a flaming building, sipping tea and saying: “This is fine.” It hasn’t been fine for a very long time, but we felt powerless to stop this slow-motion car crash as it unfolded in front of us.
We had such high hopes for this tournament in Russia. It was meant to be Gigi Buffon coming full circle, having made his debut in a 1997 play-off on Russian soil and ready to hang up his gloves at the age of 40 as the only man to ever take part in six World Cup finals. Seeing him in tears at the final whistle was a stab in the heart to all lovers of the sport.
Buffon was the man applauding to encourage others to stop jeering the Swedish national anthem, just as he had done with France. Buffon was the man who rushed up for the corner in stoppages, the last to give up. Buffon was the first to the TV cameras while his Coach ran off down the tunnel to hide from his responsibilities. Buffon is a true captain, a true legend, a true man. He did not deserve this.
Ventura not only didn’t have the guts to speak to the reporters after this humiliation, but when he finally did sit down in the confines of a contractually-obligated Press conference, he refused to resign or apologise to the Italian people for this sham of a two-year tenure. Don’t expect FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio to go without a fight either. They are both spectacularly deluded.
It’s interesting that over the last few days, Buffon has publicly stated the complete opposite of Ventura’s comments. When the Coach said they were always heading for the play-offs after being paired with Spain, the goalkeeper declared Italy “must not get accustomed to mediocrity.” When Ventura complained about the referee and the deflected goal in Sweden, Buffon said “the one thing we must not do is call ourselves unlucky.”
This rebellion was evident on the touchline during the second half of Italy’s 0-0 draw at San Siro. Daniele De Rossi was asked to warm up by Ventura’s staff, but reacted with frustration and declared (in slightly more colourful terms than I’m allowed to go into here) that he really ought to introduce a forward such as Lorenzo Insigne instead.
Insigne and Jorginho are the canaries in the coalmine. The key figures in top of the Serie A table Napoli are either dropped entirely or played out of position. The Brazilian-born midfielder was not even called up for 18 months, then eventually Ventura throws him in from the start in the biggest game of his tenure. No pressure. Insigne’s face when having to explain to his Italy teammates that he was being played in central midfield as a substitute for the last 15 minutes in Solna expressed everything: ‘Don’t ask me, I’m just following orders.’
Ventura’s decisions increasingly seemed to be made out of sheer spite and pig-headedness. Why else would he use 4-2-4 for most of the qualifying campaign and then scrap it all for 3-5-2 when everyone was crying out for a 4-3-3 formation? Why start Jorginho and Manolo Gabbiadini in the most desperate circumstances after utterly ignoring them for almost two years? Talk about setting them up to fail…
I don’t agree with the usual cliché about how this means Italian football is failing and there are too many foreigners in Serie A. The talent is there. The players were at Ventura’s disposal. He simply did not use them properly. Don’t tell me a squad with Buffon and Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Verratti and Jorginho, Alessandro Florenzi and Daniele De Rossi, Roberto Gagliardini and Lorenzo Pellegrini, Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile was not worthy of a World Cup spot.
We had such high hopes for this tournament. By virtue of the law of 12s, Italy were due to appear in the Final. Since 1970, the Azzurri have appeared in a World Cup Final every 12 years, winning it every 24. With these players, it was entirely possible. It would’ve been a fitting conclusion to the career of 2006 winners Buffon, De Rossi and Barzagli, and a bright beginning for the likes of Insigne, Florenzi, Verratti, Bernardeschi and Belotti.
This was all so avoidable.