The impossible has happened: there’s going to be a World Cup Finals without Italy.
In 2006, they won the tournament for the fourth time but, just over a decade later, they’ve not even made it to the business end of the tournament. While pundits have cited a lack of top quality players, the fact remains that just two years ago they managed to comfortably reach the quarter-finals of the European Championships, only going out after a penalty shoot-out with their old foes, the Germans.
Nonetheless, after a two-legged play-off against Sweden, they are out. A single goal over the two matches proved decisive, with Jakob Johansson’s strike in the first leg on Friday in Stockholm being the only difference between the sides. Despite 76% possession, and 27 shots on target, the Azzuri could not break down the determined Swedes in the second leg in Milan, and a 0-0 draw put them out.
It meant a sad end to an illustrious international career for the legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who finished with 175 caps over 20 years - and a tearful TV interview where he said, “It’s a shame my last official game coincided with the failure to qualify for the World Cup. Blame is shared equally between everyone. There can’t be scapegoats.”
The football world paid tribute to an icon:
And, while the focus was, understandably, on Italy’s failure to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1958, it was also a triumphant evening for Sweden, who only qualified for the play-offs on goal difference and managed to edge through to next summer’s tournament in Russia.
They were, understandably, pretty pleased, deciding to crash an on-pitch live broadcast in a manner that we hope will become mandatory for all celebrating teams from now on:
And, despite the fact that he retired from the national team 18 months ago, fans were already wondering if their unlikely qualification meant that there could be a return for the most-decorated Swedish player of all-time: the never-knowingly-understated Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
He celebrated the triumph with a single word and picture in a tweet, and you can interpret it however you like:
Back to the game though, and there was a curious incident late in the game when Daniele De Rossi was asked to warm up by Italy coach Giampiero Ventura, but pointed instead at Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne - a player that the coach had refused to play despite widespread calls from Italian supporters and media.
De Rossi explained: “I just said we were near the end and had to win, so send the strikers to warm up! I pointed to Insigne too. I just thought perhaps it was better that Insigne come on instead.”
In the event, neither of them came on - Ventura is expected to either resign or be fired imminently.
Meanwhile, people were left to ponder on what Italy’s absence would mean for the tournament in Russia next year. Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? You decide.