It’s been a confusing few weeks in the football world. And the emotions following whichever country/countries you hail from throughout the World Cup campaign have left you stranded on a desolate island. Some of us are ecstatic and hopeful for the endless possibilities of what Russia could provide. The rest of us are disconsolate, simple and plain.
One such people sidling with the behemoths of sorrow is the Italians. And understandably so. This was not supposed to be the end to their story. Progress to the tournament had been expected. By the population. By the players. By the neutrals. By me on this blog just weeks ago. And yet they disappointed to such a degree that I cannot see why the whole of Italy is even that surprised. Going through the playoff process as a European team is not of much shame. The UEFA group stages generally have you hunkered down with at least one or two powers. The away ties are tricky. It’s a slog where competition is quite high. So, to that end, I do not fault Italy. It was an understandable predicament and one which we all thought they would easily overcome. But the way that they went out is inexcusable. Pathetic would be kind. The lapses during qualification were papered over by the sense that despite these setbacks the Azzurri would still make it to next summer. A feeling of “let’s worry about our form and shape when we get to Russia.” But the reality of the situation is much more bleak. This was a catastrophe unavoidable to the fullest extent. Italy were beaten by Sweden. And honestly, quite handily. Yes, Italy dominated possession. Congratulations. But, scoring zero goals over two legs with the World Cup hinging on the result is a distinct tragedy. That cannot happen at this level. To a perceived heavyweight. Italy didn’t even create all that much. Possession aside, were not all that dangerous (wing back Matteo Darmian was their best player in the first leg to cement my point further). The Swedes happily thwarted innocuous balls into the box. They watched harmless shots go wide of the post. They survived the Oscar, BAFTA and Cannes Jury Prize winning histrionics of the Italians. Sweden had a chance to shoot, got lucky with a deflection, then held on for dear life. That’s not a fluke win. The defending was disciplined and remained resolute. Over 180 minutes the Italians should have no excuses for their futility and eventual exit. They were defeated. And it had been coming.
Since lifting the cup as champions of the world in 2006, Italy has bordered on laughable on this particular stage. Their performances in the tournament have amounted to one victory. One solitary win in a World Cup match since reigning over all. And that triumph came against an English team specializing in heartbreaking disappointments (Mario Balotelli scored the winner in that 2014 success in case you weren’t already laughing hard enough). This unraveling could be justifiably described as impending. Gian Piero Ventura succeeded Antonio Conte as manager after an impressive and overachieving Euro 2016 and I have yet to hear one reasonable explanation why him. From anyone. Why him?? It was a questionable decision in 2016 and in 2017 it is a decision that “outright baffling” does not come remotely close to being suitable. His CV reads like a random roll call of every Italian city anyone has ever heard of. He’s won nothing. He had a decent season in Torino 2013-14, but most of the credit there goes to the world-beating form of Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile combining for an astounding 35 goal haul (they still finished seventh). Fun fact: Cerci has scored FIVE goals since that season and has played for four different teams. #yikesbruv
Ventura will be vilified. His confounding resistance to field creative (and bang in form) megastar Lorenzo Insigne combined with his unequivocal talent in squeezing Marco Verratti of his, will unfortunately, be his legacy. Those two alone (playing in front of the impenetrable wall of Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli) should have been enough to sweep aside a Sweden squad comprised of players the Italians had largely never heard of. I mean, a Seattle Sounder was manning the Swedish midfield for the most crucial moments of this tie! This wasn’t an Italian team many feared. Respected? Si, signore. But no country was afraid. They were certainly good enough to play in Russia, but the Italy side lacked a midfield, and more importantly, strikers the country has been used to. There was never a replacement, or anything resembling one as he is truly irreplaceable, for the maestro Andrea Pirlo. Claudio Marchisio as a rock in the middle had not been replicated. Gennaro Gattuso neither. Alessandro del Piero is the last Italian forward I can remember I would actually pay to watch. The litany of goalscorers who followed him have been mostly forgettable (Graziano Pellé, anyone?).
This has been bungled by Ventura and his staff as he muddled with formation changes and a squad list that resembled in count an NFL training camp. I do not fault him for sticking with a back three in the playoff matches. That back three. Ventura would have been crucified in real life if these results occurred and the old Juventus guard did not get an opportunity to protect the net. But to top it all off, Ventura handed the pressure of scoring the all important rescue mission goal to a man who plies his trade in Southampton, England (to his credit, Manolo Gabbiadini played with at least some verve in the second leg). The quality upfront is just not good enough, or at least the forwards when asked to shine have not shown they can be relied upon to deliver. These gaping holes will now have to be assessed with an urgency unheard of in a nation so used to being football royalty. Roles need to be replaced and a system befitting the new roster needs to be implemented. What worked before may not be the way forward for Italy. It is scary, especially where the Catenaccio style was born and bred, but an overhaul of sorts is surely required.
The debacle surrounding Ventura is only highlighted by the premature end he has wrought. My heart sank for Buffon, a genuine icon who will wear the tricolore badge no more. He defines hero. Class, grace and unimaginable talent are just a few descriptors of this legend. He played his part, of which I cannot say the same for the ten men in front of him. The outfielders lacked poise and a professional edge to effectively attack and create chances. The footballing community is worse off without Gigi and the tournament will definitively rue his absence.
The talk in the aftermath of this headline grabbing story has certainly focused on the failings of Ventura. Rightly so. And it reiterates the points I was stating last week regarding management and decisions the higher ups inevitably make. The Italian FA proved complacent in hiring Ventura. They saved money and banked on the veterans in the squad to carry them into the World Cup. They banked on being Italy. The board based this decision on the fight and hunger the Azzurri had shown under the relentless Conte in Portugal for the Euros. A manager players play for (see: Chelsea winning the title in his first season). Unlike Ventura (see: Daniele de Rossi refusing to come on versus Sweden due to him suggesting Insigne as a more intelligent substitute for the pitch instead). The selection of Ventura was lazy and amounted to a nonexistent diligence process I am constantly yearning for. An epidemic of global proportions.
I won’t rehash what I have previously rambled on about, but my rant is relevant. A stark reminder of the theme I was exposing is the current fiasco unveiling itself at Everton. Billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri is on the verge of making a mockery of this storied club. After spending £140m in the summer (including a hysterical and nonsensical £45m on Gylfi Sigurdsson), he has already sacked one manager in Ronald Koeman. And now he has a shortlist of names he seemingly found by googling “football managers not entirely the shittest”. David Moyes is no longer an option, but was at one point. Sam Allardyce, as always, has a chance even after ruling himself out. Sean Dyche firmly in the fold because…why not, I suppose. Watford’s Marco Silva, despite managing at his current post for less than four months, the new favorite (following along with my distaste of this rapid crowning of new kings). And hey why not also throw DIEGO SIMEONE in the mix?! You know, in case the Argentinian wants to leave the sun and sophistication of Madrid for the liver birds of the River Mersey. #MAMMAMIA This, on a whole, is a farce. But not an uncommon one. Owners run the football industry and their money rules. They are the culprits. The victims? As always are the paying fans. An abundance of indifference and a salient lack of knowledge, and at a more basic level: desire, the destructive force at club and country level. It is not a new phenomenon, but certainly, and sadly, is the modern norm.
There is hope for Italy in the future. Their players have passion and the new crop of youngsters looks promising. Different leaders on the pitch will emerge as legitimate legends say goodbye. The country has too much history and glory to dwell on this disaster. They will be back and they will prosper. The hopes are that those accountable will acknowledge their mistakes and step aside for new blood. But as we have seen and know too well, the top brass at association and club level simply do not operate at any sort of ethical or logical level. What Italians are now asking for is not dissimilar to that which Evertonians, and fans of many other clubs, seek: proper care from those on the throne.
It is not much to ask for. And yet apparently unattainable.