KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Italian football was plunged into an unprecedented crisis after the Azzurri failed to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.
Italy, proud four times world champions, failed in Milan to recover from a 1-0 defeat in Stockholm last week in the opening leg of their European play-off. The goalless draw in front of their furious fans meant a 1-0 aggregate defeat.
This is only the second time Italy have failed to qualify for the finals and only the third World Cup they will miss; they did not enter the inaugural finals in Uruguay in 1930.
Failure will exacerbate the sense of crisis sparked by seemingly perpetual matchfixing scandals and underlined by the fading status of Italian clubs in European competition.
All of this has been pointed up by the collapse into Chinese ownership of the once-great San Siro giants Internazionale and AC Milan while Serie A fell behind the commercially aggressive English, Spanish and German leagues in terms of international visibility.
Even French football– as evinced by Paris Saint-Germain in their €222m purchase of Neymar – has been grabbing the greater headlines.
Once upon a time Italian clubs could purchase the world’s best talent and home-grown players would never have dreamed of moving abroad. Now all of that has changed. Italy and Italian football are not what they were.
Certainly Italy were unfortunate to have been drawn in a qualifying group including Spain. That saw Gian Piero Ventura’s men finish runners-up and forced into the do-or-die challenge of the play-offs.
At 69 Ventura was the oldest coach in Italy’s history and acknowledged after the game that his time was up.
Italy enjoyed 75pc of possession but failed to create any clear openings. Antonio Candreva drove over the top in the first half and Sweden keeper Robin Olsson was at his sharpest in the second. Sweden might even have snatched victory. On the counter attack, they were denied at least one reasonable penalty claim.
In stoppage time Italy’s veteran goalkeeper/captain Gigi Buffon charged upfield twice at corners. All to no avail.
A tearful Buffon called time on his 175-cap international career in the moments following the confirmation of Italy’s failure to qualify.
The 39-year-old Juventus goalkeeper had already decided to hang up his Azzurri gloves after Russia 2018 and, with that opportunity stripped from him seven months before the tournament, he is taking his leave early.
In tweets from the national team’s official account, he said: “We are proud, we are strong, we are stubborn. We will pick ourselves up as we have always done. I am leaving a national team set-up that will know how to pick itself up again.
“Best wishes to everybody, and especially to those with whom I have shared this beautiful journey.”
Buffon, who lifted the trophy in Berlin following a penalty shoot-out victory over France 11 years ago, continued: “The blame is divided equally among all of us. There must be no scapegoats. We win together and we lose together.
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself but I’m sorry about the whole affair. We blew something that could have meant so much. The main regret is that it ended like this.”