Italy’s leading daily sports paper La Gazzetta dello Sport pulled no punches on Tuesday morning. “Italy, this is the apocalypse,” read their headline describing the failure to reach a World Cup for only the second time in their history. A 1-0 two legged defeat by Sweden consigns the Azzurri to a first tournament-less summer since 1992 and more questions than answers.
Amidst all the dismay and anger, the football world collectively sympathised with Gigi Buffon. The peerless goalkeeper wiped his tear soaked cheeks as he pictured the sobbing future generations of Italian footballers watching at home on television. For him personally, he misses out on the opportunity to match the feat of his hero Dino Zoff and play in a World Cup at 40.
Buffon refused to place the blame at the hands of manager Gian Piero Ventura, but his diplomacy wasn’t adhered to elsewhere. During the second half of their futile attempts to break a wall of yellow shirts down at the San Siro, a member of the coaching staff instructed Daniele De Rossi to warm up. The Roma midfielder angrily responded: “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win,” while Lorenzo Insigne sat twiddling his thumbs alongside him on the bench.
Such mutiny within the squad has been evident for some time. Much of the disharmony has centred on Ventura’s tactical rigidness and baffling team selections. His refusal to integrate Insigne – the form wide player in Serie A for much of the past 18 months – into a side struggling to create anything of substance beggars belief. Jorginho – the conductor of Napoli’s attacking orchestra – had only mustered a grand total of 45 minutes until Monday.
Ventura stubbornly pushed forward with a 4-2-4 formation despite concerns over the shape of the team. That was woefully exposed as they were thrashed 3-0 by Spain in Madrid, when it was clear a system lacking any semblance of balance in midfield wasn’t conducive to tackling a side who won a World Cup and two Euros based on the strength of theirs.
Senior players apparently pleaded with the manager to revert back to the 3-5-2 utilised by Antonio Conte and he eventually backed down, but the sophisticated detail of the Chelsea coach wasn’t replicated by Ventura. Against Sweden, it felt as if Italy were on course to break the record for the most aimless number of crosses produced in a top tier game. The fluidity that marked Conte’s tenure was totally lost as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci found themselves forced to bypass midfield and go direct.
There is an argument in some quarters that the talent pool just isn’t there, but that is largely redundant when you look at the players available to Ventura compared to what Conte had at his disposal. Insigne, Jorginho, Stephan El Shaarawy and Alessandro Florenzi are all stars for their club sides, while Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti have developed into strikers of significant pedigree. They still possessed more than enough talent to prevail against the workmanlike Swedes.
Serie A houses the most exciting title race in Europe’s top five leagues, led by Napoli, whom Pep Guardiola no less proclaimed as the best team on the continent. The average age of the players plying their trade in the top flight is lower than both the Premier League and La Liga, and Italy’s underage sides reached the latter stages of both the Under 19s Euros and Under 20s World Cup. Four of the big six (Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Milan) have managers aged 50 or under at the helm, while Italian coaches have succeeded elsewhere – delivering four of the last seven English titles and currently holding the German and Russian versions.
All of which makes Ventura’s appointment more bewildering. Sure, attracting another Conte calibre candidate was always going to prove difficult. Elite coaches invariably can make more money and earn more credibility in the club game. It’s why the average age of international managers far exceeds that of Europe’s top clubs. The best aren’t swayed by national jobs anymore, at least in their prime years.
Calcio has evolved in recent years, yet they hired someone very much from the old school with huge limitations. The fear at boardroom level within the Italian football federation (FGIC) was of another Conte scenario, hence why 69 year-old Ventura got the gig initially. Ventura’s modest CV should’ve raised alarm bells though. The biggest job he’d previously held was at Torino and before taking the national job he had only ever coached in seven games away from Italian soil.
Where they go next is another issue. Ventura was dismissed late on Wednesday and there are now plenty of options. The FGIC are also seemingly unwilling to match the salary expectations of superior targets, which rules out the likes of Carlo Ancelotti. Do they go with another cautious appointment in the Ventura mould and risk plunging the team even further into the dark ages? Or do they gamble on a hungry but unproven younger coach likely to make mistakes?
A wider discussion shines focus towards FGIC president Carlo Tavecchio. Italy’s Olympic president Giovanni Malago has already recommended that Tavecchio resign and, in truth, little has changed in the three years of his tenure. It was he who referred to Lazio’s Cameroonian midfielder Joseph Minala as some “Opti Poba, who has come here, who previously was eating bananas” in a typically archaic and stone age comment.
Italian football is in far healthier shape than it was after conquering the world in 2006, but is still hindered by those in charge of the game. Perhaps this humiliation will be a watershed moment.