For weeks after the draw pitted them against each other, the idea of Italy v Portugal in the final of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers had been endlessly discussed. Would Cristiano Ronaldo miss out on what would surely be his last chance to play in the game’s most prestigious tournament, or would the Azzurri fail to qualify for the second time in a row?
However, this meeting will never take place because, while CR7 and his Portuguese teammates beat Turkey in the semi-finals, North Macedonia surprised Roberto Mancini’s Italy with a 1-0 victory at the Stadio Renzo Barbera in Palermo.
It’s a result that has sent shockwaves through the footballing world, and a moment that means the Azzurri will once again miss out on a World Cup, as they did five years ago.
Indeed, since winning the 2006 edition of the elite FIFA tournament, Italy’s record has been nothing short of abysmal. Four years after their triumph in Germany, the Azzurri returned from South Africa having drawn 1-1 in their first two games against Paraguay and New Zealand before losing 3-2 to Slovakia.
The 2014 tournament was even worse, with Cesare Prandelli overseeing a 2-1 win over England only to lose 1-0 to Costa Rica and Uruguay. As qualifying for the 2018 edition begins, Gian Piero Ventura is in charge and sees his team eliminated in the playoffs by Sweden.
“The crisis in Italian football started with Calciopoli in 2006,” Luciano Moggi said the next day. Speaking in an interview with Adnkronos, the former Juventus manager highlighted the fact that when Italy won the final at the time, there were five Juve players in the Azzurri team and four others representing the adversaries of France.
“Unfortunately, in Italy we are like that,” Moggi continued, “when something works, we want to destroy it and now we are paying the consequences.” While the motivation behind his words might be self-serving, it was interesting that he defended Mancini, insisting the coach ‘did a great job with the material he has’.
there is no doubt. After all, last summer the Azzurri won the European Championships with much of the same team as Mancini and gave them the perfect motivation to claim ultimate glory at Wembley.
While his work – and indeed the performances of his players last summer – deserves all the applause and will never be forgotten, there is no doubt that Italian football must recognize the need for change.
In the aftermath of this latest failure, an interesting voice was that of former Turin striker Francesco Graziani. “We have to have a new way of working, in youth systems, aiming to make teams play well and not wanting to win at all costs,” he told TuttoMercatoWeb.
“We have to try to have a precise identity which we don’t have at the moment,” Graziani continued. “I hear people say players are cheaper abroad but I disagree, let’s start investing in Italian players.”
Is there any truth in these words? Without a doubt. If we take a look at the most regularly used rosters of the top eight clubs in Serie A, we find that only 18 Italian players are regularly called up to start games.
Further analysis shows that of those 18, no fewer than seven – Juventus pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Alessio Romagnoli (Milan), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Gianluca Mancini (AS Roma), Rafael Toloi (Atalanta) and Francesco Acerbi (Lazio) are centre-backs.
With Italy playing a four-man defender, that means only two of those players can start for Mancini. The deadlock continues in the central midfield where we find Sandro Tonali (Milan) Manuel Locatelli (Juve), Nicolò Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma) and Giacomo Bonaventura (Fiorentina). Remembering that Chelsea’s Jorginho and PSG star Marco Verratti usually start for Mancini, we basically have five players battling for position.
Of the remaining six, there is a right-back (Napoli Giovanni Di Lorenzo), a left-back (Fiorentina captain Cristiano Biraghi), three wingers – Lazio’s Mattia Zaccagni plus Napoli’s Matteo Politano and Lorenzo Insigne – and a striker (Lazio’s Ciro Immobile).
There is also a very clear generational divide, with seven of this group of 18 players in their thirties. This continues a theme emphasized by Graziani, and he’s certainly not alone in believing Italian clubs need to do more to help young players.
Among those who spoke was 21-year-old midfielder Nicolo Fagioli, who joined Juventus’ youth sector in 2015 and worked his way up to the under-23 side that play in Serie C.
His performances there in Italy’s third tier convinced Andrea Pirlo to bring Fagioli into the first team last season, handing him his debut in January 2021 to wide approval.
Yet last summer, Fagioli was sent on loan to Serie B side Cremonese. While he netted three goals and six assists to help the Grigiorossi sit at the top of Italy’s second tier, he remains clearly unhappy at being forced down a level.
“I see that in Spain, maybe not so much in England, but also in Germany and France, more young people are playing than in Italy,” said Fagioli – currently on duty with the Italy Under-21 side. years – at a press conference this week. .
“I can say that when it comes to Italy a young player can get his chance, make a mistake in one or two games, he gets criticized, people say he’s not ready and then he is sent for experience at a lower level, so it is difficult for a coach to choose someone consistently.
“You feel it and you see that’s what’s happening, that Italian clubs don’t tend to trust young players. We hope things will change over time.
It’s hard to find fault with these comments, and even if Fagioli turns out to be below the required standard at Juve, finding himself overlooked by every other Serie A club surely doesn’t reflect his quality.
If he played in the Bianconeri top flight, doesn’t the 21-year-old deserve an opportunity with a side at the bottom of the table? Isn’t he really better than the midfielders who regularly play at Udinese, Spezia or Sampdoria? Couldn’t Fagioli have helped Salernitana, Genoa, Cagliari or Venezia in their relegation battle?
The lack of confidence continues in the national team, where these aforementioned seven players in their thirties have shared 383 caps for Italy, while of the other 11 only three – midfielders Barella, Cristante and Locatelli – have made it. 20 or more appearances for Italy.
Hopefully, as Chiellini, Insigne and Immobile head towards international retirement, Mancini can be bold enough to select younger players like Bastoni (22) and the Sassuolo pair of Giacomo Raspadori (22) and Gianluca Scamacca (23) instead. than some older palliative options.
The next tournament will be in the summer of 2024 with the World Cup two years later. Italy have time to build for the future, but they need their top clubs and top managers to do the same, otherwise they risk repeating those failed qualifying campaigns.