Italy did not go to the World Cup in 1930. They did not qualify for the World Cup in 1958. And they will not be at the World Cup in 2018. The four-time champion is out, beaten 1-0 over two legs by Sweden and left to wonder what on earth has gone wrong. For the 39-year-old Gianluigi Buffon, playing what was almost certainly his final international, it was a terrible way to bow out.
Perhaps there was an element of misfortune. Italy was unfortunate to be drawn in a group with Spain when they might have got Romania or Wales. They were unfortunate having finished second to Spain to then draw probably the most impressive of the non-seeded second-place sides. And they will point to individual moments of misfortune in the game: the elbow on Leonardo Bonucci in the first leg that might have earned Ola Toivonen a first-minute red card; the deflected Jakob Johansson shot that brought the only goal; the string of saves made by the Sweden keeper Robin Olsen; the two penalties they might have won in the second leg.
But the truth is that Sweden probably also should have had two penalties and that, for most of the second half, Italy lost their shape and discipline and as a result failed to take advantage of the way they dominated possession. In the fraught final minutes there were too many long balls, too much that was hit hopefully into vaguely dangerous areas, too little class, too little precision.
And the truth also is that this set-back is a surprise but not a shock. There will be those who blame the federation for not gaming the system – as Romania, Wales and Poland have done – to secure a better ranking. There will be those who blame the manager Gian Piero Ventura and ask why somebody of such modest achievements should have been appointed in the first place. They will have a point. But the biggest issue by far is the players. There was a general consensus that the Italy squad that went to Euro 2016 was the weakest that had ever gone to a tournament; only the alchemic intensity of Antonio Conte dragged them to a quarter-final.
But it’s no coincidence that Ventura picked seven starting players aged 30 or more for the first leg in Stockholm; four of them 33 or older. There were only six who started the second leg but the point remains. This is an ageing side and the main reason for that is a dearth of emerging talent.
Perhaps Ventura could have been bolder in his choices. Jorginho, who has been excellent of late for Napoli, only made his competitive…