When Italy defeated France on penalties to win the 2006 World Cup, most Italian football fans would have laughed at you if you’d said that, 16 years on, the Azzurri would not have contested another World Cup knockout match since.
That is the reality facing Italian football, after a peculiar period of time where the three-time champions have been unable to hit the required standards on the World Cup stage. The 2022 tournament represents the second successive World Cup that Italy have failed to qualify for. Given the talent at their disposal over the last decade or so, it’s incredible that they’ve missed out twice.
Before that, Italy’s World Cup campaigns had hit a sour note anyway. Consecutive group-stage exits in 2010 and 2014 was enough of a crisis, but now the team has reached a point where they can’t even earn the right to compete amongst the world’s elite.
All this is at odds with Italy’s status as European Champions, having won the delayed Euro 2020 last summer thanks to a penalty shootout victory over England in the final at Wembley. Roberto Mancini’s side are sixth in the FIFA World Rankings, making it all the more inexplicable that they won’t be present in Qatar. Those who bet on World Cup winners will not be able to plump for the Italians.
This time, their World Cup qualification hopes were dashed by North Macedonia, who produced a dogged performance to defeat Italy 1-0 in Palermo in their play-off semi-final.
Even if Italy had won that match, they would have had to take on Portugal in the play-off final, which would have been no guarantee of progression.
Italy’s 2022 World Cup failure stemmed from their inability to win their qualification group. They were pipped to the post by Switzerland after a run of poor results close to the end of the campaign, and that landed them in a play-off they should never have needed. The negativity surrounding that failure was clearly still affecting the squad against North Macedonia.
Whether complacency played a part in Italy’s doomed campaign is anyone’s guess. It’s fair to say that few expected them to win Euro 2020, and their doing so could have led to some over-inflated egos in the dressing room. Complacency is the first step towards failure in international football, and the defeat to North Macedonia will have been a sharp wake-up call for Mancini and co.
The problem is that there will be immense pressure on Italy by the time the next World Cup cycle comes around. Their saving grace could be the fact that the 2026 tournament will feature 48 teams as opposed to 32, although it’s believed that many of these extra places will go to teams in other federations rather than UEFA nations.
Either way, Italy need to prove that they can recover from this latest setback, and produce a strong campaign in qualification for both Euro 2024 and the 2026 World Cup. After the glory in London last summer, the winter of 2022 is set to be altogether more painful for Italy.