Italy out of the World Cup? Yes, it could happen again

Italy’s 0-0 tie at Northern Ireland in the group stage finale sentenced it to a playoff. ABC photo

I was in the middle of that mosh pit of humanity in Rome’s Centro Storico back in July. Italians, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, danced and sang in the streets to a chorus of wildly honking car horns passing by on Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

Italy had just won the European Championships. It had knocked off favored England, in London, for its first European title since 1968. Four years after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years, Italy was back atop Europe. It had all the momentum to be back atop the world at the World Cup in November.

Now it may not even go. Again.

In what would amount to a national lockdown of shame, Italy must survive a four-team playoff over the next week to grab a World Cup berth. This would be like Kansas not qualifying for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, Meryl Streep not getting an Oscar nomination, Beyonce getting stood up on a date.

Except it would happen twice. In a row.

“It’s impossible to believe,” said Paddy Agnew, a Rome-based correspondent for World Soccer magazine for the last 37 years. “And it’s just hard to believe because this particular Italian team is one of the best Italian teams in the last 30 years.”

Tension that will be thick as a Neapolitan pizza begins Thursday when Italy hosts North Macedonia in Palermo, Sicily. The winner plays on the road against the Turkey-Portugal winner March 29 with the World Cup berth at stake. 

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal must beat visiting Turkey Thursday. Wikipedia photo

Yes, Portugal may not make it, either. That means either Italy or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the greatest player in history, will not be at the World Cup in Qatar.

“You were here for the last one,” Agnew told me. “It was national mourning and national despair. This time there will be national mourning and national despair on a sense of incredulity.”

What happened?

How did Italy get to this point? How could it possibly be in this position after a world-record 37-game unbeaten streak? How far has it fallen? 

Really, it wasn’t a total collapse. In Europe’s cutthroat World Cup Qualifying group competition, Italy merely tied its last two games and Switzerland slipped into first for the group’s lone automatic berth.

European qualifying isn’t like CONCACAF where the U.S. must merely finish in the top three of an eight-team group of primarily what are referred to, generously, as “minnows.” The fourth-place finisher can still qualify by beating the Oceanic champion.

In fact, Italy was cruising along to win the group. It had won its first three games 2-0 then put it all together to win the European Championships. But like a shiny Maserati that had driven too far, it ran out of gas.

Italy’s offense went flat. Not counting a 5-0 win over last-place Lithuania, Italy scored only five goals in its next six games. That includes a 2-1 loss to Spain in the Nations League semifinals, ending the 37-match unbeaten streak, and a meaningless 2-1 win over Belgium for third place.

Two missed penalty kicks

Italy’s new paddling boy has become Jorginho, Chelsea’s star who missed penalty kicks in both ties against Switzerland. That last one came in the second-to-last game of the group stage when he missed in stoppage time.

Even after all of that, Italy still could be heading to Qatar if they had just beaten Northern Ireland in the group stage finale. Instead, Northern Ireland played ironclad defense before a wild home crowd, Italy couldn’t break it down and wound up in a 0-0 tie. Meanwhile that night, Switzerland pounded Bulgaria, 4-0, to win the group by two points. (Switzerland also would’ve advanced due to tiebreaker unless Italy had beaten Northern Ireland by at least three goals. But entering the game Italy felt it only needed a win, thus the national angst.)

Roberto Mancini led Italy to a world-record 37-game unbeaten streak but must win two more to make the World Cup. Wikipedia photo

“I am disappointed,” Italy manager Roberto Mancini said in Belfast that night. “We made life complicated for ourselves and qualification should have been sealed at least two games ago. We had the chances and did not take them.”

Italy did have injuries. Roma’s Leonard Spinazzola, one of Italy’s star defenders, blew out his Achilles in the Europeans and missed the rest of the qualifiers. Defender Giorgio Chiellini, the captain with 114 caps, injured his thigh and missed the last key Switzerland and Northern Ireland games.

Ciro Immobile, who has scored 144 goals in 201 games over the last six seasons with Lazio and leads Serie A this season with 21, missed the Northern Ireland game with a calf injury. However, he has only scored 15 goals over eight years with the national team and the country is still waiting for him to get in form.

Pressure on Mancini

The one who’s star may fall the most is Mancini. After the 2018 disaster under Gian Piero Ventura, a journeyman manager horribly in over his head, Mancini left Zenit in St. Petersburg and became Italy’s golden boy. He became the guy you wanted as a drinking buddy, a father, a symbol for the national sport that means so much to Italy.

He also imposed an attacking style similar to the one Marcello Lippi used in leading Italy to its fourth World Cup title in 2006. Mancini gave the players one important message: Go have fun.

“That is not the way Italian teams and national teams in particular have traditionally played,” Agnew said. “They usually have five men back on defense and are very careful about moving their defenders forward. Mancini has never been like that. From the moment he took over the national team he wanted players who were comfortable on the ball, who could knock it about and wanted to go forward. He wanted to play a much more attacking game than what we’re used to.”

Italy, Portugal favored

Italy and Portugal both have 6-5 odds to advance to Qatar. Turkey is 10-1 and North Macedonia 50-1. If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put one centosimo on Italy. Chiellini is still out and joining him on the sideline will be starting midfielder Manuel Locatelli (tested positive for Covid Thursday) and striker Federico Chiesa (knee). 

Ciro Immobile has 144 goals in 201 games for Lazio but only 15 in eight years with Italy. Wikipedia photo

Immobile is healthy and Italy is ranked sixth in the world. Portugal is eighth, Turkey 34th and North Macedonia 67th. But playing in Lisbon or Istanbul with a World Cup berth on the line will be like Christians entering the Colosseum 2,000 years ago.

(During the draw for the Playoffs, they also drew for home site in the final which makes little sense. Then again, neither does Italy or Ronaldo not going to the World Cup.)

Agnew said he’d take Italy to advance.

“They’re a good team in their own right,” he said. “They’ve won a big tournament.They had a great performance. They’re professional. They know the challenge. It’s a 1,000-1 shot to miss a penalty twice in the two key matches. The players will know that: ‘We were the better side. We should’ve won.’

“They’ll be full of confidence.”

As forward Gianluca Scamacca told Corriere dello Sport:  “It will depend a lot on us. The opponent counts up to a certain point. We are Italy.”

North Macedonia

It’s no guarantee they’ll beat North Macedonia. It lost only two of its 10 qualifying group games and won at Germany for the Germans’ first World Cup qualifying loss since 2001. North Macedonia outscored its opponents 23-11.

It has dangerous strikers in Aleksandar Trajkovski, 29, who has scored 19 goals in 74 caps, and Ezgjan Alioski who has 12 goals in 54 caps. Goalkeeper Slote Dimitrievski, 28, will play in his 53rd game for his country.

“It’s part of that whole Balkan tradition of good football,” Agnew said. “They’re always had good players. They come out of the original old Yugoslavia. They have a good tradition.”

North Macedonia will have the added incentive of making the first World Cup in the nation’s history which gained independence in 1991. Also, Palermo’s Stadio Barbera seats only 36,000. Although Italy is 13-1-1 in Palermo historically, it may not be an intimidating atmosphere.

“We need to qualify,” said Gabriele Gravina, president of FIGC, the Italian football federation, to Radio Anch’io Sport. “We have the conditions to do so. We made it difficult for ourselves by missing two very important penalties. But Italy respond in moments of difficulty.”

I will be at home Thursday and if Italy wins I’ll be watching the final on my birthday in Molise, Italy’s tiny, charming region on the Adriatic Sea. I will find a bar where people will dance and sing to a chorus of honking car horns passing by.

Or maybe not.

“It they don’t make the World Cup it would be a terrible pity,” Agnew said, “a crime against sporting nature.”