The shock of Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup is one of the reasons we love the sport
Italy have gone 60 years without missing a World Cup, and now they’ve missed the last two buses to the greatest spectacle on Earth.
It’s like an old bus joke: you wait for one for hours, and suddenly two show up at the same time. Except in the opposite direction.
It might seem strange that the team that won the European Championships just eight months ago lost to North Macedonia (population: 1.83 million, FIFA ranking: 67).
But that’s the nature of football and, more specifically, World Cup qualifying (at least that’s how it works in Europe, where a total of 13 countries are eligible.)
You have a certain margin of error, assuming you’re not extremely lucky. A team can make a mistake once, twice or three times without suffering the consequences.
Italy, architect of its fall
Italy would have gone through their qualifying group, scoring 22 points out of a possible 24, had it not been for three careless mistakes in the three games they dominated. These were: missing home and away penalties against Switzerland, and conceding a stupid goal against Bulgaria.
If any of those three draws had instead been a win, you wouldn’t be reading this column right now. Despite those missed chances, they were masters of their own destiny in the game against North Macedonia.
They took a lot of shots (32, 19 of which were blocked), had a lot of possession (70%), but couldn’t score until the opponent scored a world in injury time.
That’s how football works.
That’s part of the appeal of the game: goals are rare and the outcome is often determined by crucial moments.
The unpredictability of football saw North Macedonia go to the European champions – who have never lost a home World Cup qualifier in their history – and won with a game plan.
It’s the suspense we’re looking for.
What does this mean for Italian football? After the 2018 World Cup qualifying disaster against Sweden, that meant more pain. This involves humiliation and suffering, which Euro 2020 will only partially alleviate.
Italy is still on the right track
But here’s what it doesn’t imply. Despite frequent knee-jerk reactions from the media and commentators, Roberto Mancini does not deserve to lose his job. It’s not one of those situations where obvious mistakes can be pointed out: players who should have been called up, substitutes who backfired and formations that didn’t work.
The result should also not be interpreted as implying that Italy is heading down the wrong path. These things don’t depend on a penalty not being taken (or two, in this case). The football it plays and the players it creates are used to gauge the health of the national development system.
The first has undergone significant transformations, which are all for the better. The days of Italy sitting around, soaking up the pressure and scoring goals at the other end are long gone.
Few successful teams have played this way, and Mancini not only changed that culture, but it also spread to young managers in Serie A and Serie B.
They strive to emulate Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, rather than the old-school mega-catenaccio teams.
There are two considerations to make about this latest benchmark, which generates players. To begin with, it is a delayed indication. The changes in youth care, development and infrastructure that you are making today will not be felt for 5-10 years.
Following Italy’s exit in the first round of the 2014 World Cup, and again, after the disaster of 2018, many adjustments were put in place. Some are beginning to bear fruit as promising youngsters, others may do so in the future, and still others may never bear fruit.
But keep in mind that when measuring current-gen performance, you’re always looking back.
Secondly, when it comes to talent, there is an element of chance.
Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Pippo Inzaghi, Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino were among Marcello Lippi’s strikers when Italy won the World Cup in 2006.
Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Domenico Berardi, Giacomo Raspadori and Joao Pedro were Mancini’s alternatives against North Macedonia. That should have been enough to win, but they lacked the attacking power of previous teams.
Having the occasional superstar on a team who wants the ball and shoots a lot can make all the difference. Sometimes you have to understand that generational gifts are born, not made, as the name suggests.
Maybe the truth is a little easier and a little less interesting.
When Italy won Euro 2020 they weren’t the best team in Europe, but they deserved to win. For a month they played some of the best football without having some of the best players.
They’re no worse team than Switzerland (who are going to the World Cup) or North Macedonia (who, if Cristiano Ronaldo allows it, could join them in Qatar)
But they still deserve to be knocked out because individual players made significant mistakes at key moments. Mancini’s course of action is correct either way.
Between their previous World Cup match (in Brazil in 2014, when Luis Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini) and the next, at least 12 years will have passed (2026).
But if they stick to this plan, they can come back stronger.