The World Cup is finally upon us. A month of the world’s best and the rest going toe-to-toe to lift football’s ultimate prize.
There will be the inevitable mix of heroes and villains, a serving of excitement and just a sprinkle of controversy to spice things up.
And yet, despite all of the buzz and hysteria, many are going into this World Cup with a touch of apprehension and sadness at the absence of some of the goliaths of international football.
We have Panama, but no Netherlands. We have Saudi Arabia, but no Chile. Most of all, there is no sight of Italy at a World Cup for the first time since 1958. This failure to make it to Russia 2018 is the final culmination of over a decade of decline since their 2006 World Cup win in Germany.
In the 12 years that followed that success, Italian fans have seen their side age beyond recognition, lose the mass of star quality that allowed their success and they have consistently struggled at recent major tournaments. This is incredibly uncharacteristic for a side that has been crowned world champions four times and also has a European crown to its name. But, since beating France in the 2006 World Cup final, Italy have failed to make it beyond the group stages of a World Cup and have won just one game (2-1 Vs England in 2014) out of their last six at the competition since.
Their European Championship record reads slightly better, two quarter-finals and a 4-0 beating from Spain in the 2012 final, but this has been a team sleepwalking into decline. Age has finally caught up with the Azzurri and the 1-0 aggregate playoff defeat to Sweden was the final nail in the coffin for a side that has been cheating a proverbial death for years.
What was supposed to be the final hurrah for their legendary goalkeeper – Gianluigi Buffon – has turned into a summer of regretting what might have been.
The dust has settled and the post-mortem is already well underway on this lowest of lows for the Italian side, but what do the fans think of their failure to make it to Russia? And will they be watching on regardless?
The International Break caught up with AS Roma and Italy fans, Claudio De Feo (69) and Roberto Cerrone (68), to get the inside track on the thoughts of a nation and their perception of this downfall:
– What did you make of Italy’s failed qualifying campaign and what/who do you blame for not making it to Russia 2018?
Roberto: “We started off ok but were outclassed by Spain. Being in their qualifying group was always going to be difficult, the damage was done in the playoff.”
– What were your immediate feelings after the Sweden game?
Claudio: “Sweden has some good players and beat us over two legs by playing to their strengths. We were unlucky with some decisions and some shots hitting the post, but the fault is all ours. The team must take responsibility.”
– What improvements need to be made to avoid this happening again?
Roberto: “These results haven’t come as a surprise. What makes it worse is that a lot of the players don’t seem to dedicate themselves to playing for Italy and enjoy the social side of it more. There is no strong base to the team.
“We need to go back to trusting in the academies and youth development, getting a better mentality into the next group of players. Like what we had in 2006…”
– Will you still be watching the World Cup despite your absence?
Claudio: “I am still looking forward to watching the World Cup, even if we are not there. I always look forward to the big tournaments.”
– What team/teams will you be rooting for?
Roberto: “I wouldn’t go as far to say I will be supporting a team. But I will be watching Russia to see how they do on home soil. I will also be keeping an eye on England, Brazil and Egypt with Mohamed Salah.”
– Any players you are particularly excited to watch?
Roberto: “I have already mentioned Salah. I will naturally be watching for Ronaldo and Messi too, as well as Antoine Griezmann.”
– What is the Italian view of having a world cup in Russia and the potential scandals/problems that could arise from it?
Claudio: “I hope it goes well and there are no problems. But if there are, who will take the blame?”
Roberto: “Italy are usually at the centre of scandals so who are we to judge?
“Having a World Cup in a country with strong politics is not unusual, we had it in 1978 with Argentina.
“Now we have Putin and Russia but times have changed, I think it will be a good World Cup.”