Winning Euro 2020 last summer is now a bittersweet memory for the Italian national team after they failed to qualify for a second successive World Cup finals. The Azzurri will not be in Qatar, just as they were not at Russia 2018 after falling at the same playoff stage.
“It is clear that we are destroyed and crushed, a great void will remain within us,” said the veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini after Aleksandar Trajkovski’s last-gasp strike earned North Macedonia a famous 1-0 win in Thursday’s playoff semi-final. “There is a great disappointment. Even today we played a good game but we couldn’t score. From September to today we have made mistakes and we have paid for them.”
The midfielder Marco Verratti said North Macedonia’s goal in added time was a “real nightmare”. “This group had a great chance at the World Cup,” he said. “We came from the unbeaten record, so it is difficult to accept what happened tonight. We all know that we have given everything. Now surely it is time to ask ourselves some questions.”
Since lifting the World Cup in 2006, Italy have not played a knockout game in the tournament and have won one group stage match, beating England in 2014. As defending champions in 2010, Italy crashed out at the group stage, drawing with New Zealand and losing to Slovakia.
Defeat to Sweden in November 2017 led to Italy’s first absence from the World Cup finals since 1958, and in qualifying for Qatar 2022, Roberto Mancini’s team finished second to Switzerland in their qualifying group.
“It’s hard to say something right now – I don’t know what to say,” Mancini said. “Last summer was the most beautiful joy, now comes the greatest disappointment. It is not easy to think of other things. I am very sorry for the boys: I love them much more tonight than in July. I am the coach, I am the first responsible, the boys are not. They have a great future, they are strong players for the future of the national team. We did not deserve this defeat.”
In winning last summer’s Euros, beating England on penalties in the final at Wembley, Mancini had restored pride to Italian football after those years of failure on the international stage. Robbed ofFederico Chiesa and Leonardo Spinazzola, two stars of last summer succumbed to long-term injury, and with an overreliance on Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, the veteran central defensive pair, Mancini’s team did not do enough to get past the Macedonians. Italy had 32 shots on goal in Palermo.
The Italians were left to rue their failure to beat Switzerland in group qualifying. Both matches with the Swiss were drawn, with Jorginho failing to score a penalty in each match. “Stepping up there twice and not being able to help your team and your country is something that I will carry with me forever,” a tearful Jorginho said of that pair of misses. “People say we need to lift our heads and carry on, but it’s tough.”
The Italian Football Federation president, Gabriele Gravina, has backed Mancini to continue, though Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 World Cup-winning captain, is reported in the domestic press to be the leading candidate to take over, with Marcello Lippi, who coached that victorious side, linked with being installed as technical director. “We must accept these verdicts, I am embittered for our fans,” said Gravina. “Mancini? I hope he continues, he has a commitment to a project and I hope he can quickly dispose of the waste.”