Italian Football's Moment of Truth Has Arrived - Now or Never
Not since the aftermath of the Second World War and the Superga air disaster that decimated a magnificent Torino side in 1949 has Italian football gone through such a torrid patch. When Pele announced himself to the world as a 17-year-old in Sweden in 1958, Italy hadn’t even qualified.
Italy national team singing the national anthem. (Image: Getty Images)
Not since the aftermath of the Second World War and the Superga air disaster that decimated a magnificent Torino side in 1949 has Italian football gone through such a torrid patch. When Pele announced himself to the world as a 17-year-old in Sweden in 1958, Italy hadn’t even qualified. When he signed off with a third winners’ medal in 1970, Italy were the team Brazil beat in the final. It was the first time since the war that they had made it out of the group stages.
The intervening years had included the battle of Santiago, a 2-0 defeat to Chile, the 1962 hosts, that David Coleman of the BBC described as “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.” Four years later, they were at the wrong end of a 1-0 score line in a match at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park that has come to be immortalized as The Game of Their Lives. Pak Doo-Ik’s goal was enough for the unknown North Koreans to script the greatest of World Cup upsets, and send the Italians home to a rotten-tomato reception.
On Monday (November 13) night, Italy face the very real possibility of missing out on the World Cup for the first time in the colour-television era. Sweden are hardly the opponents they would have chosen before the draw for Europe’s World Cup play-offs was made. The Swedes have won seven (including 1-0 in the first leg) and drawn six of their 23 matches dating back to 1924.
The most famous of those wins, 2-0 in Gothenburg and 3-0 away in Naples, came in 1983, as Enzo Bearzot’s world champions failed miserably to qualify for Euro 1984. That was a team that boasted of Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi in defence, Carlo Ancelotti and Bruno Conti in midfield, and Paolo Rossi up front, but they won only one of eight qualifying matches.
The slump since winning the World Cup in 2006 has often been overlooked, with the run to the final of Euro 2012 camouflaging multiple weaknesses. The Netherlands thrashed them 3-0 at Euro 2008, before the penalty shootout loss to Spain in the quarterfinals. Four years later, a dominant performance against Germany in the semifinal, with Mario Balotelli enjoying one of his rare switched-on games, hid the mediocrity of their earlier displays. In four previous games, including the shootout victory over England, Italy scored just four goals. Andrea Pirlo’s midfield mastery and the impudent penalty against England obscured the lack of cutting edge up front.
The last two World Cups have been especially dismal, with the national team’s travails mirroring the decline of Serie A. In the 1990s, Italian teams made the final of the European Cup/Champions League in seven successive seasons, winning it twice. In the last decade, when Barcelona and Real Madrid have carved up six titles between them, Italy can point to only Internazionale’s 2010 victory, and two defeats in the final for Juventus.
In South Africa in 2010, Italy drew with Paraguay and New Zealand, and were beaten 3-2 by Slovakia to go out in the first round. Four years later, in Brazil, the joy of a 2-1 victory against England was quickly forgotten after 1-0 defeats to both Costa Rica and Uruguay resulted in another early flight home. Of course, that Uruguay game also involved Luis Suarez taking a bite out of Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder, adding injury to the pain of defeat.
There was little recrimination, or at least not as much as you’d normally expect, over Italy’s failure to clinch automatic qualification for this World Cup. Despite the fact that Italy beat Spain 2-0 in the last 16 at Euro 2016, it was a revamped Spanish side that had the better of the qualifying games, drawing 1-1 in Turin and winning 3-0 in Madrid.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic hadn’t even made his senior debut for Malmo the last time the Swedes beat Italy before these play-offs, with a late Kennet Anderson goal in a friendly leading into the 1998 World Cup. Zlatan may have retired now, but the Swedes remain tricky opponents. The Netherlands were one of the teams they edged out to make it this far, and Italy will be desperate to avoid a yellow banana skin in what are trying times for the country’s football.
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