It was, without doubt, the lowest point in recent memory for the Italian national team. The last time the Azzurri failed to qualify for a World Cup was a couple of years before a legend like Franco Baresi was even born. Everyone agreed that radical reform was needed at the organisation which presided over this sporting apocalypse. But who will don their superhero cape and come to the rescue of an operation so clearly in significant distress?
That it has taken two months and counting to get round to electing a new president of the Italian football federation speaks volumes about the sluggish nature of changing anything in the country. Progress seems to move more slowly than some flabby midfielder who turned up for pre-season training carrying several kilos of pasta too many. Carlo Tavecchio’s departure - which many thought should have happened within hours of the calamitous elimination by Sweden - took days. Even when he went, he did so more reluctantly than a schoolboy returning to his studies after a summer in the sunshine.
But the departure of the leader of the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) and his hapless appointee, Giampiero Ventura, was only part of the job which needed doing. Indeed, the vacancies left behind have the kind of to-do list attached that would make even the strongest-willed candidate go running for their Mamma. Nonetheless, a number of brave souls have thrown their green-white-and-red hats into the ring. The most compelling contender, for a variety of reasons, is Damiano Tommasi.
There is no doubt - looking at what he is likely to be up against - that he best fills the description of the new broom needed for the job. He can give 15 years to Amateur Federation chief Cosimo Sibilia and 20 to Lega Pro boss Gabriele Gravina. But it is not simply his relative youth which is on his side. The other men also boast lengthy careers in the political machinations of the Italian game and the appointment of either of them would hardly feel like a revolution. For a while it seemed as if Lazio President and Tavecchio puppet-master Claudio Lotito was in the running too, which really would’ve been adding insult to injury.
The ex-Verona, Roma and, briefly, Queens Park Rangers midfielder, on the other hand, would represent a clean break with the ancien regime.
I can remember well enough Tommasi’s playing career where he more than demonstrated the qualities of graft and determination the role as FIGC President would require. With his curly mop of hair - which often resembled bed-springs sticking out of a broken mattress - he made up for any technical deficiencies with drive and endeavour. If that isn’t a perfect calling card for the undoubtedly demanding role of saviour of the Italian national team, I don’t know what is.
But what really marked him out during his days on the field, of course, was an act of incongruous altruism in the modern game. When returning from serious injury with the Giallorossi, he agreed a deal to go on minimum wage, realising what a risk the club would be taking in keeping him on. His return to Serie A action after nearly a year-and-a-half on the sidelines was a rare moment of pure emotion in an otherwise cynical and selfish world. “I did it because I love Roma and football,” he said at the time. That kind of passion for the game must be a prerequisite of whoever takes on the FIGC President’s post.
It won’t be easy, of course, for anyone to rebuild La Nazionale, but the appointment of Tommasi would give a much-needed shot of youth, enthusiasm and credibility to the project. In Italy, the land of Bella Figura, appearance can often be as important as substance and to bring in someone outside the old guard could send a vital message. It would tell the world and everyone involved in Calcio that the profundity of the crisis which resulted in World Cup elimination had been recognised and efforts would be made to address it. Rather than a sticking plaster, this would be the complex surgery that the game requires. It’s not as if Tommasi would be a complete novice to the Federation, as he’s been in charge of the Italian Players’ Association (AIC) since 2011.
The thoughtful, politically-engaged footballer cannot be the answer on his own, of course. It takes a will to change from everyone involved to tackle the issues at the heart of Italy’s failure to qualify. Nonetheless, he looks the best-equipped and most exciting option to deliver the cure the game desperately needs. He might not be a miracle-worker, but he’ll be willing to put in the hours and think outside of the tired old box that the Azzurri were trapped in with Tavecchio and Ventura.
There is an opportunity out there for a radical new path and a fresh blueprint that can put the Italians back where their history says they belong. But those of us who have been watching the politics of the game for a while will be taking nothing for granted. Tommasi is not the favourite for the post, there are others who can count on greater support for their candidacy. So, when the votes are cast later this month, all we can do is peek through our fingers at the final result - probably more in hope than expectation.