On November 13th 2017, soccer fans were shocked as Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The Italians join the Netherlands and USA in some of this year’s largest FIFA letdowns. This once great team seems to have hit their all time low since their recent decline.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Italy, the FIFA champions just a short while ago in 2006 will miss the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. It will be the first time their opponents, the fairly underestimated Swedes, will be qualifying for the World Cup since 2006. But was this outcome a cruel and unlucky reversal of fate? Or did a weakened Italian receive a much deserved loss from their Swedish friends?
Coming into round 2 of the qualifiers, there seemed to be an obvious winner. There was no way that historically-established Italy would ever lose to less internationally experienced Sweden. The average viewer would dismiss the possibility of Sweden taking down the titan that is Italy. However, it can be argued that Sweden looked better than Italy coming into the matchup. After placing in front of the Netherlands and coming in second in Group A, their strength was proven to be notable.
On the other hand, Italy has been looking weaker than ever recently. Since their 2006 championship win, Italy hasn’t been performing quite on par with their standards from past years. In the FIFA World Cup 2010 and 2014, they finished last and 3rd respectively in their groups. This year after a shaky performance in the qualification round one groups, Italy placed second, right under Spain. This forced them to participate in the second round of qualifications, whereas we know they would eventually lose to Sweden on aggregate 0-1.
After the loss, many fans were quick to blame Italian coach, Gian Piero Ventura. Ventura became Italy’s head coach in July 2016, following five years of coaching the Torino Football Club. Since Ventura took control of the team from former coach Antonio Conte, the team has failed to impress. Ventura’s contract was extended a few months ago in August, until 2020. However, things were looking different for Ventura after Italy’s failure to qualify. After refusing to resign, Ventura was fired from his coaching position, just two days after Italy’s loss.
Ventura was heavily criticized for his decision making in the last game vs Sweden. Fans were quick to call out Ventura’s questionable playstyle choices during the match. It seemed Ventura was hell-bent on having his players crossing versus Sweden. This despite the fact that Sweden’s lineup is fairly tall, standing at an average of 1.86 m. Ventura’s insistence on performing his obviously sub-par tactics is what gathered the most attention from viewers. By watching the game, it was clear that Ventura—and perhaps the Italian team as a whole— was too set in their ways. An inability to adapt was Ventura’s downfall, and it revealed just one of the many ways he was no longer fit to coach this team.
Many people also commented on what seemed to be a poor choice for Italy’s starting lineup. Ventura was criticized for keeping many strong midfielders on the bench for too long, including El Shaarawy, Candreva, and Insigne. These players were unused while others such as Bernardeschi played on the field, a questionable handling of Italy’s many resources by Ventura. The most disappointing roster decision made by Ventura this game was lack of using Insigne. Although many thought Insigne—one of Italy’s favourite attacking players—would be a logical choice for the starting lineup, he was left to rot on the bench for over an hour. Even when Italy needed to score, lest they lose on aggregate, the last sub in was Bernardeschi rather than the obvious choice of Insigne. Once again, Ventura’s stubbornness did everything it could to prevent Italy from winning.
Let’s look at some context in Bernardeschi’s stats. In the 12 matches played by Italy in the this year’s FIFA qualifiers, Bernardeschi is tied for the lowest passing accuracy at 66%, out of Italy’s seven midfielders. Italy’s other midfielders average a 81.3% passing accuracy without him. Italy even had a whopping 76% ball possession in this match against Sweden. This is the highest out of all their qualifying matches, the total average coming out to be around 62%. Regardless, Bernardeschi and the rest of the Italian squad couldn’t squeeze out a goal in the 27 shots taken, leading to them losing the match.
Even after this devastating loss, fans of Italy may have something to look forward to in the future. With Ventura’s sacking shortly after failing to qualify, a new coach has the potential to lead Italy to a brighter future. Many want Carletto Ancelotti, former coach of Milan and Real Madrid, to take the reigns. Whoever it may be, the new coach will have a lot of work on their hands. Given team captain Gianluigi Buffon’s retirement after an astounding international career, there are sure to be tough times ahead. Hopefully, a change in leadership will steer Italy in the correct direction, and rebuild the legacy of a once great superpower.