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It's Italy's Year Zero

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service Nov 19 2017, 19:00 IST
 Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon reacts during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Italy and Sweden, on November 13, 2017 at the San Siro stadium in Milan. / AFP PHOTO / Marco BERTORELLO

Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon reacts during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Italy and Sweden, on November 13, 2017 at the San Siro stadium in Milan. / AFP PHOTO / Marco BERTORELLO

One by one, they slipped away, in those wakeful hours that followed Italian soccer's darkest day. Gianluigi Buffon, denied his dream of a sixth World Cup, led the way, confirming with tears in his eyes that he would not play for his country again. Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli soon followed.

Italy lost two World Cups last Monday night: first their chance of appearing in the 2018 edition, and then the three players who represented the final links to 2006, the last men standing from the generation that conquered the world.

As Italy tried, on Tuesday, to digest the idea that they would not be present at a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, the country embarked on that journey that comes as an inevitable consequence of a sporting failure that has the air of a national humiliation.

First, they sought people to blame, soon settling on two candidates: Gian Piero Ventura, the coach, and Carlo Tavecchio, president of the FIGC, the country's soccer federation. Tavecchio fired Ventura but ignored growing calls that he resign.

Then, as they absorbed the shock and its fury abated, Italy began to seek explanations. There is an instinct in these situations to call for what the newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport labelled a "Year Zero," to assume that only seismic change can rectify a seismic shock, to demand that everything be ripped up and started again. The disappointment is too intense to be rooted in bad luck; it must, instead, be proof of some wide-ranging systemic failure. It is tempting to look at the consequence and reverse-engineer a cause.

In the 24 hours after the loss, Italy did just that. Former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi advised that "we have to do many things differently from now on" for the country to regain their prestige and their pedestal. Urbano Cairo, the president of Torino FC, was busy calling for a "complete restart."

An editorial in Gazzetta dello Sport called for more money to be invested in youth academies and suggested a task force be dispatched to learn from the successes of Germany and, more recently, England in kick-starting the development of young players.

It all fits so neatly. Italy is a country used to measuring the speed and scale of its own decline - in society as much as in sport - while the demise of Serie A, the top league, is an article of faith across soccer. Not long ago, it was the most desirable and most admired club competition in the world. Now it languishes behind the Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga for glamour, interest and financial power.

Its stadiums, with only a couple of exceptions, are rotting; it continues to struggle with the scourge of some of its clubs' ultras. Its teams, Juventus apart, generally have little or no effect in continental competitions; many are over-reliant on ageing players, their legs weary and powers dulled. It is Italy's self-perception - of a country slowly, inexorably crumbling - made flesh and played out every Saturday and Sunday.

That logic, though, rather ignores the reality. Serie A is the most vibrant it has been in years, with arguably the most engaging championship race in any of Europe's major leagues. Napoli, described by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola as one of the best teams he has ever faced, Roma and Internazionale all have the look of genuine challengers to Juventus' hegemony.

Serie A's teams, meanwhile, have a younger average age than those of both the Premier League and La Liga, and the country's young players are enjoying significantly more success than they have for some time: Their under-19 team finished as runners-up in last year's European Championship, and their under-20s were third in this year's World Cup.

Most remarkably, some of them are even being given a chance to play in Serie A, a league with a chronic distrust of youth. A core of young players - Gianluigi Donnarumma, Manuel Locatelli, Alessio Romagnoli, Patrick Cutrone - have enlivened AC Milan.

Juventus can boast Daniele Rugani and Federico Bernardeschi; Lorenzo Pellegrini joined Roma this summer; in Pietro Pellegri, a 16-year-old striker, Genoa may be in possession of the country's brightest talent; Atalanta, a team with a squad drawn in no small measure from its youth academy, qualified for a European competition for the first time in decades last season.

Italian soccer has its problems, of course - stadiums, ultras and television rights, most pressingly - but it is in a healthier state now than, for example, when the country won the World Cup in 2006, in the aftermath of a match-fixing scandal. It has not failed to qualify for Russia because of some structural shortcoming or moral flaw but for rather more prosaic reasons.

First: Italy have failed to understand how FIFA's ranking system, which decides which teams are seeded where in World Cup qualifying, works; or, more pertinently, their authorities have failed to understand how to make it work for them.

Italy have a woeful record in meaningless friendly matches over the last five years. That has seen the national team, one of Europe's superpowers, slide down those FIFA rankings, leaving them as a second seed when the qualifying draw was made. Italy were duly drawn with Spain, a top seed. Better results in friendlies - or, ironically, merely playing fewer friendlies - would have spared Italy such an intimidating opponent in their group and might have averted the need for a playoff altogether.

Second: When the FIGC, which governs Italian soccer, sought a replacement for Antonio Conte last summer, it settled upon Ventura, the experienced but unremarkable coach of Torino. Ventura had no experience in international soccer, and little at the summit of Serie A. He was attractive because he seemed substantially calmer than his predecessor. He was also significantly cheaper than Conte, a world-class coach in the prime of his career, who is now at Chelsea. As it has turned out, the FIGC got what it paid for.

And third: Though Italy are the most surprising absentee from Russia next summer, missing a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, they are not the only major nation that will not be present. The Netherlands missed out, too, and so have Chile, the United States and Cameroon - the champions of South America, North and Central America and Africa.

International soccer is no longer the sport's gold standard; its quality is not as high as it once was. It is, however, more finely balanced than it has ever been. Size is no guarantee of quality - witness Iceland's qualifying ahead of Turkey - and neither is history. Italy, and the rest, just happened to stumble as the playing field levelled.

That is not to say, of course, that Italy can simply continue on their path, change coaches and hope for the best; as former manager Sacchi said, it is an error to "seek a scapegoat to salve our conscience," to believe an individual can be held responsible for everything in a team sport.

Italy were eliminated in the group stage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, failing to beat such luminaries as Costa Rica, New Zealand and Slovakia in the process. "This disaster has not come out of the blue," as Sacchi said.

The problem, though, is less with the future than it is with the past.

Massimo Oddo, a part of the 2006 team, said Tuesday that the World Cup victory had tricked the country into thinking "everything was perfect, that no change, renewal or improvement to our general system of football was necessary."

Crucially, that extended to the players themselves. That 2006 generation cast the longest of shadows: The fact that, 11 years on, three of its members were on the field in Milan is a measure of how long it has endured. Italy could not quite bring themselves to say goodbye and, in doing so, they deprived subsequent generations of air.

Now, in the aftermath of Milan, and Sweden, it has no choice. Italy must move on, and they must start again. Those goodbyes were the changes they needed. Italy, at last, have their Year Zero.

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