When Germany annihilated record five-time world champions Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the football world was stupefied. This was the World Cup. This was Brazil.
As shocking as 2010 World Cup winners Spain’s failure to qualify from Group B for the knock out stage. As shocking also, as Costa Rica’s qualifying for the 2014 World Cup quarter finals after leading Group D which had traditional powerhouses Italy, Uruguay and England.
This is the world cup that should have alerted the world to the changing terrain in football. It’s not necessarily a shift of power but a pointer of things to come at Russia 2018.
As football was still coming to terms with the 2014 World Cup shocks, Euro 2016 threw the spanner in the works. Iceland qualified from the group and beat 1966 World Cup winners England in the round of 16 to qualify for the quarter finals, while Wales not only qualified for the quarter finals but also eliminated pre-tournament favourites Belgium to qualify for the semi-finals.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup has not even kicked off and already shock waves are reverberating throughout the football corridors. Many were still reeling from Netherlands failure to beat the tape when Sweden did the unthinkable in the play offs. They denied Italy a place in the company of men at the high table.
The four-time world champions will not be in Russia. Just like reigning South America champions Chile, CONCACAF champions USA and Africa champions Cameroon. For Italy, the clouds have been gathering for some time, but few paid attention, least of all, themselves.
They finished bottom of group F at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa in a group that had un fancied New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay. At the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Italians failed to qualify from group D which had Costa Rica, Uruguay and England and finished bottom of the group for the second successive World Cup.
They lost 1-0 to minnows Costa Rica and giant Uruguay. At Euro 2016, they were eliminated by Germany in the quarter finals on penalty shootout. Eventually they have been eliminated after conceding to a deflected own goal away in Sweden. The Swedes were without injured talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Since their dramatic 2006 World Cup win which came against a background of scandals and turmoil back home, Italian football has taken a negative trajectory. The dominance of the domestic league by Juventus – have won the last six Serie A titles – may have worked against Italian football.
The key players in Juventus are all foreign; Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado, Alex Sandro and Mario Mandzukic. The big home players Gianluigi Buffon, Mattia De Sciglio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli; all national team stars are defenders.
It explains why even though Juventus has been representing Italy in the Champions League, their experience has not necessarily helped the improvement or development of the Italian game.
The outstanding Italian players at the moment; Lazio’s Ciro Immobile with 14 goals and six assists together with Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne are both in very poor company. Serie A is lit up by the goals and creative guile of foreigners who also include Mauro Icardi, Eden Dzeko, Dries Mertens, Luis Alberto and Ivan Perisic.
No surprise therefore that Italy suffers a goal scoring malaise at the big international tournaments while also struggling in the qualifying stages. Defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi of Roma, is a 34-year-old veteran while the creative responsibilities are left to Paris St Germain’s Marco Verratti, who does not fit the bill of world class yet.
Besides, the Azzuris are suffering a crisis of identity since Euro 2012 when they tried to let go of their defensive style and reputation.
The result is that opponents are no longer intimidated by Italy’s reputation or history. Their world class captain; 39-year-old Buffon, was inconsolable after the elimination by Sweden but his bucketful of tears only told one side of the story – disappointment. What they didn’t tell is that football has lately found a way past tradition and pedigree.
The natural right to qualify or win big tournaments is now a thing of the past. In this era of decreasing talent across the globe, teams have shifted strategy and are now polishing the intangible qualities to outwit the traditional giants.
Hard work, belief and mental toughness are now playing a bigger role for the smaller teams where skill and technical brilliance would have made the difference in the past. Italy are simply the latest victim of this new philosophy.